I generally agree with the consensus of movie critics/reviewers when it comes to most movies – I tend not to have wildly different views, although there might be some wiggle room. However, I have to say that I disagreed with the general opinion when it comes to A Serious Man – I really, really, REALLY didn’t like it.
I enjoy the films of the Coen brothers – I’m not one of those huge fans who love every one of their films (I didn’t particularly like The Man Who Wasn’t There, for example, and we don’t talk about Intolerable Cruelty or The Ladykillers), but I could watch The Big Lebowski or O Brother, Where Art Thou? again and again. No Country For Old Men was great, and I was really happy that they got the Academy Award for Best Directors for it. But I don’t believe it means that everything they do now qualifies as art.
After a bizarre beginning scene in a Polish shtetl with characters speaking in Yiddish, the film moves to Minneapolis in 1967 and Larry Gopnik, a Jewish college physics professor, who is an ordinary man but with life happening around him: he is up for tenure but the committee has been receiving defamatory letters about him; a student complains about his grade, then leaves a bribe, but refuses to acknowledge it as such, as does the student’s father, who threatens to sue Larry if he either accepts it or denounces his son; his brother is living with them, seemingly because he’s got nowhere else to go and seems to spend most of his time draining a cyst; his son has been using his name to buy records of the week from a club, and now owes a lot of money; and his wife has decided she wants a divorce (and a proper Jewish one) so she can remarry their neighbour, who is being annoyingly nice about it, and so Larry is the one who has to move out of his own house because it wouldn’t look proper. It’s made worse when the neighbour dies in a car accident and Larry has to end up paying for his funeral because the neighbour’s will was in probate.
Basically, a whole lot of shit happens to Larry and he just takes it. He goes to ask the rabbi for advice, but gets fobbed up with other rabbis, who tell him completely meaningless stories that they think will help but don’t. This stuff is relentless, a never-ending onslaught of crap that Larry allows to happen and does nothing about. I have read that it is supposed to be a modern take on the story of Job, but it just annoyed me to the point of nearly walking out – when Larry and the neighbour are driving in their cars, and you get the sense that something bad is going to happen, I was going to actually walk out if Larry and the neighbour crashed. I’ve never walked out of a film before, and I don’t particularly want to start now, but I was seriously considering it, that’s how irritated I was by the film. I understand that this is black comedy, and there is an element of taste to that, but I was just pissed off by it all. I could feel myself getting frustrated and angry, fidgeting in my seat, wishing for it to end.
The ending made it apparent that the Coens were having a laugh on us: Larry has just decided to accept the bribe (because of all the financial worries) and gets a phone call from the doctor’s telling him to come in for the results of his test, which they can’t discuss on the phone; his son is standing outside the school where he is getting extra Jewish lessons, the teacher unable to open the storm cellar as they watch a tornado coming closer and closer. And that’s how it ends. How annoying does that sound to you? Because it still sounds annoying to me.
I can see that the Coens have written and directed a well-constructed film, and the cast act well (a largely unknown ensemble, with none of the usual Coen regulars). However, it doesn’t compensate for a film that galled and vexed me to the point of distraction.