A Serious Man (2009) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)


The Book of Job is one of the most perplexing parts of the canonical literature of Christianity and Judaism. It has inspired countless debates about what it means and whether Job ever existed in reality or was just meant to be the main character in a parable. Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about the account it is that the character of "God" is a singularly unpleasant entity. He allows the most pious believer on earth to be subjected to every manner of anguish in order to win an argument with the Satan. The Evil One asserts that Job is devout only because his life is good. In response, God gives the Prince of Darkness permission to destroy Job's possessions and family, and eventually to cause him great physical anguish as well. Job never questions God's will during his ordeals, but cries for an explanation for his suffering, since he has been righteous and can't see why he would be singled out for such hardships as he must bear.

When God finally appears to tie up the loose plot threads, He appears as a whirlwind, and the divine voice kvetches about how difficult it is to be the creator of the universe, how hard He works, and how much responsibility He has, how His kids don't even call on the Holy Days and blah, blah ... In essence, He chastises Job for thinking that God should explain himself to His creations, although He does finally reward Job for never doubting or cursing his creator throughout his travails. In other words, God is like a particularly petulant old grandfather who feels no need to explain his arbitrary actions to the young whippersnappers who claim to be his grandchildren, and therefore owe him their very existence.

A Serious Man is the Coen Brothers' seriocomic take on the Job story. Larry Gopnik (Jobnik? ... Little Job?) is a physics professor whose life suddenly seems to take a very sharp turn for the worse. His bills mount up. His tenure application is starting to seem doomed. He's being blackmailed by a student whose bribe he refused. His wife wants to leave him for his best friend. His deadbeat, half-sane brother has worn out his welcome on the couch and is courting various legal problems. His daughter is taking money from his wallet to save up for a nose job, and his son is a stoner who appears to be well on his way toward making a fool of himself at his own bar mitzvah. Through it all, Larry never doubts God, but he seeks answers. He's a physics professor, after all, and he wants to know why the universe doesn't add up properly, why a righteous man seems condemned by heaven. Like the Biblical Job, he questions three wise men (rabbis, in Larry's case), who offer various degrees of non-advice ranging from oblique or irrelevant parables to total non-responsiveness. Larry remains patient, shows compassion for his troubled brother, and tries to wait out his bad run.

Larry's patience and virtue are finally rewarded. The Lord uses a car accident to smite the man who would steal Larry's wife. The wife gives off signals that some form of reconciliation is possible. Larry's son pulls it together at the bar mitzvah. Tenure looks like a certainty. Things are really starting to go his way.

And he blows it.

He decides to stray slightly from the virtuous path he has always taken and to accept a bribe from a student. Just as he finishes altering the grade book, the phone rings. It is his doctor, who has been studying X-rays. It is an urgent matter.

Meanwhile, across town, Larry's son is about to encounter a sudden, unexpected tornado. A whirlwind, get it?

Oh, that God. He just won't let anything slide.

I don't think I can tell you anything about the Coens that you don't already know.

THIS is an impressive filmography:

  1. (8.30) - No Country for Old Men (2007)
  2. (8.30) - Fargo (1996)
  3. (8.20) - The Big Lebowski (1998)
  4. (8.00) - Miller's Crossing (1990)
  5. (7.80) - O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
  6. (7.80) - Blood Simple. (1984)
  7. (7.70) - Barton Fink (1991)
  8. (7.70) - The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
  9. (7.50) - Raising Arizona (1987)
  10. (7.50) - A Serious Man (2009)
  11. (7.40) - The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
  12. (7.20) - Burn After Reading (2008)
  13. (6.40) - Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
  14. (6.20) - The Ladykillers (2004)

Their median is 7.7, if you are scoring at home. It takes 7.9 to make the Top 250 of all time! Interestingly, the Coens do not have a film in the all-time top 100, although they have three of the next 50.

They are literate, thoughtful, and philosophical. One of them graduated from Princeton, the other from NYU film school. They are superb craftsmen who make personal films. They are deeply cynical. Because of those characteristics, they are critical darlings. For the very same reasons, they only occasionally resonate with movie audiences. They make the movies they want to see, and not that many moviegoers are like them. Their brilliant black comedy, the Big Lebowski, grossed less than twenty million dollars, even though it has created a true cult of worshippers. Two other cult favorites, Raising Arizona and Fargo, won some fans and even an Oscar for Fargo, but grossed in the low twenties. The brilliant gangster film, Miller's Crossing, which many rate equal to The Godfather, went virtually unnoticed at the box office. Another excellent film, The Man Who Wasn't There, grossed less than ten million, without even a cult to follow it! Their Best Picture winner, No Country For Old Men, was also their best grosser, but maxxed out at a modest $74m. They have filled the public consciousness with Marge Gunderson, the Dude and Anton Chigurh, and they have earned our respect, but not our love.

This film will not change that situation, because it is just as brilliant as usual and even more aloof. It must be their most personal film yet, given that it's about growing up Jewish in Minneapolis in the 60s, in a family where the dad is a professor. It is deeply immersed in Jewish rituals and culture. It contains dialogue in both Yiddish and Hebrew. How many moviegoers do you think will want to immerse themselves into that environment to watch a black comedy based on the book of Job, especially one that is more philosophical than funny? I didn't see a lot of hands going up out there, even though my own hand was raised. A Serious Man was one of the Coen's biggest box office duds, and was essentially doomed from the start. It opened on six screens, never reached more than 260 theaters, and was unable to sell even ten million dollars worth of tickets, less than two years after the brothers were given the Best Picture Oscar. This limp performance came on the heels of their two highest-grossing films ($74m and $60m), and four consecutive films which had been widely distributed.

Here's the box office data in reverse chronological order (last column is max # theaters):

Release date Title Total US gross Max # theaters
10/2/09 A Serious Man $9,228,768 262
9/12/08 Burn After Reading $60,355,347 2,657
11/9/07 No Country for Old Men $74,283,625 2,037
3/26/04 The Ladykillers $39,799,191 1,589
10/10/03 Intolerable Cruelty $35,327,628 2,570
11/2/01 The Man Who Wasn't There $7,504,257 259
12/22/00 O Brother, Where Art Thou? $45,512,588 847
3/6/98 The Big Lebowski $17,451,873 1,235
3/8/96 Fargo $24,611,975 716
3/11/94 The Hudsucker Proxy $2,816,518 126
8/23/91 Barton Fink $6,153,939 189
9/21/90 Miller's Crossing $5,080,409 289
3/13/87 Raising Arizona $22,847,564 697
1/18/85 Blood Simple $3,851,855 ?




There is full-frontal nudity in this one, although it's quite a distance from the camera. Larry climbs up to fix his TV antenna, and his rooftop perch gives him the opportunity to see over his neighbor's fence. He is dazed to see that his sexy female neighbor likes to sunbathe naked. The actress is Amy Landecker.


Sidebar: the music

If you, like me, were into Jefferson Airplane, you are going to love the musical score for A Serious Man. This film incorporates strains from "Today," "Comin' Back to Me," "3/5 of a Mile in Ten Seconds," and "Somebody to Love." Those four songs are from the same album ("Surrealistic Pillow")! The first two are among my favorite songs, and bring a tear or two of memory. The last is a classic, of course, if somewhat overexposed through the years.

DVD Blu-Ray

The Critics Vote ...

  • It was nominated for two Oscars, Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.


The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 7.5/10. See the main commentary for detailed info.


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this film is a C+ on our scale. It's the kind of brilliant, original, personal effort that critics love and mass audiences shun.

Return to the Movie House home page