review of A Serious Man, by Christopher Orr in The New Republic:
The film is often quite funny, especially when it casts a knowing eye on the rituals of middle-class Jewish suburbanhood at the very moment when they were about to have the generational rug pulled out from under them. (It is no coincidence that the movie is set at the time when Joel and Ethan were themselves coming of age.) And there are moments of genuine tenderness as well. But humor and empathy alike have trouble flourishing in the grim narrative soil the Coens provide, in which every cosmic joke is a black one. As Ethan explained in an interview, “For us, the fun was inventing new ways to torment Larry.” Over time, though, the fun becomes theirs alone. The game is too apparent and, for all the Coens’ craftsmanship, the accumulation of insults becomes deadening.
Everything I said in my previous post, comedy is very serious business, on Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, applies to this film as well. The son in A Serious Man was the only one who I consistently felt viscerally connected to. Michael Stuhlbarg is talented, but he ultimately didn’t embrace Gopnick’s desire to be a serious man, didn’t TRULY take it to heart, so there was an element of distance and comment in his performance (“See Gopnick be verklemmt” hahaha). As a result the highs were not as high as they could be (the son’s Bar Mitzvah), and the lows were not nearly low enough: the occasions when he is supposed to “break down”, like in the lawyer’s office, did not kick me in the stomach in the way I wanted and needed to be kicked. And in the end, the film just doesn’t add anything to the question of why bad things happen to good people. And the fact that God only knows why is not enough for the brothers Coen to take to the bank.
Better luck next time, fellas.