When does a dark satire about life transition into a marathon of bad luck and suffering by a hapless, spineless man? Though I'm sure that's not what the Coen Brothers intended when they created A Serious Man, that's the experience I had when I watched the film.
A Serious Man is about the trials and tribulations of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), and it's an ostensibly retelling of the story of Job from the Old Testament. Bad things happen, then worse things happen, then even worse things happen, all while Larry hangs on to his faith in Judaism. If you go back to the Bible and read the actual Book of Job, however, the story is about a bet between God and the Devil, where Job is the sucker who has more and more bad things happen, all as he retains his faith in the Lord. In the end, his family are killed, his servants are killed, all of his livestock dies, but somehow he still praises God and God ultimately rewards his unbending faith.
It's an interesting and thought-provoking story and would make for a good film (as it has done in the past), but that's not what happens in A Serious Man because Larry doesn't really have any sort of crisis of faith and the ending most assuredly doesn't have him seeing any sort of reward from God for his faith. Instead, we're left being rather amazed at what a spineless loser Larry is, unable to stand up for himself, unable to value himself in his family and without any self respect at all. This is comedy?
The ensemble cast of A Serious Man was terrific, and the langor and insular nature of the Jewish community within which the Gopnicks live was beautifully captured, to the point where you never think twice at an attorney suggesting Larry visit with the Rabbi before he proceed with any sort of legal action.
Having said that, though, I will also say that there's precious little depth to any of the characters in the film and generally their motivations and behaviors are inexplicable. A film populated by stereotypes gets rather tiring after a while, as you keep hoping for something interesting and surprising to happen and someone to react in a manner other than formulaic. As you would expect from a story based on the depressing Book of Job in the Bible, the film really consists of "and now what bad thing is going to happen?" turns every few minutes.
Larry shares a 70s tract home with his wife Judith (Sari Lennick), children Danny (Aaron Wolff) and Sarah (Jessica McManus), and his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is staying temporarily, but has clearly overstayed his welcome, particularly with Sarah, who has that mysterious teen need to occupy the bathroom for long periods of time. Judith is having an affair with the local widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and, adding to the mix, Larry's a professor at the local college and is up for tenure as the film proceeds too.
It might be the case that I'm just not the right person for a dark comedy of this nature, but while the Coen Brothers are highly respected in Hollywood, I don't really understand why this film has received such critical approbation. It was even a nominee for Best Picture from the Denver Film Critics Society, of which I'm a member, though I didn't vote for it personally.
Larry (Michael Stulberg) talks on the phone while his divorce lawyer (Adam Arkin) waits
In the world of comedy, there are jokes where you laugh with the character or laugh at the situation, but there are also jokes because you're laughing at the character, and it's their pain, their problems, their misfortune that's somehow supposed to be entertaining. The most extreme form of this latter type of comedy is Jackass, a film that I think is idiotic and not even the slightest bit amusing.
I'll just end this by saying that if the idea of a film about a hapless, spineless man who has misfortune after misfortune piled onto him, without ever redeeming himself or getting a glimpse of the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is your idea of a good premise for a comedy, however dark, then you might well enjoy A Serious Man.