Joel and Ethan Coen have sold their souls to a haphazard soulshark. Rather than giving up their whole souls for permanent triumphs, they have bargained to make at least one very bad movie for every very good one. If you are a fan of the pair, then you probably have your list but I do it something like: The Hudsucker Proxy paid for No Country for Old Men which was so good that it probably required payment of The Man Who Wasn’t There and The Ladykillers also. Burn After Reading was awful, but the very next film, A Serious Man was wretched. I have to think the soulshark owes them a Citizen Kane type success now.
The setting is an unnamed “Levittown” every-no-where in the middle 1960s. Larry Gopnick, professor of mathematics, is having a very bad couple of weeks. He’s bribed and threatened by a student and he’s facing the tenure committee that is being buffeted with letters asserting immoral behavior. His wife wants a divorce so she can get married to a friend of the family. His son is about to have his bar mitzvah but is only interested in television and pot, and his daughter is totally aimless with regards to everything but her hair. The rest of the movie contains a couple of car accidents, a heart attack, an anti-Semitic neighbor, and Jewish educators trying to puzzle through the meaning or impact of Grace Slick (ok, this last bit is an exaggeration but a movie this bad needs a review with a little distraction).
A Serious Man is yet one more pitiful copy of Death of a Salesman that mimics the pathos but leaves out the larger despair that makes Salesman almost tragic. Further, it is a Jewish version of suburban emotional blunting like Revolutionary Road, American Beauty, Little Children, and The Ice Storm. While I am not a fan of all of these films, each had at least one thing that made watching it time neutral or even being well worth the time spent. Not even in the same sport, let alone ballpark for this awful flick.
There are attempts at what I can only call wry humor. The problem is that the uncle that has to constantly drain a cyst, the daughter’s follicle obsession, being cuckolded by a new-age, touchy-feely but Orthodox Jew do not even rise to the level of pathetic, they are ultimately just silly.
What hammers this aspect flush is too many of the conflicts are in vignettes that just stop. I understand unfinished stories, half-narratives or whatever other term I care to make up are often considered part of a mature style—no, we do not all need to have every loose end tied up to be satisfied. If the film had been more tightly (or even a little) controlled, this narrative choice might have worked. Instead, it looks like a third or more of the film was just cut to the floor and swept away while the editor napped.
It is impossible to determine the caliber of the acting since the characters are so poorly formed. Everyone was supposed to play suburban Jewish stereotypes and they do; given this I will not list the actors if for no other reason than to spare them the little shame I can in this not-so-humble review. In that it is an ensemble piece they all equally sucked or succeeded. I’m still trying to determine the answer here. But there is no reason to try to help me in this minor pursuit.
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