I should put my cards on the table at the start: I'm not a fan of the Coen brothers' films. In fact, there's only been one that I've seen which I've really enjoyed, and that was their last one, Burn After Reading, mainly because it was hysterically funny.
The big problems I tend to have are that their films are often not about anything and lack characters I care about. While I did go into this with an open mind, A Serious Man falls down badly on both counts.
It tells the story of Larry Gopnik, a physics lecturer, who suffers an appalling run of bad luck. Now, at this point, I should put a spoiler warnings: I don't think I can review this without giving a way the plot. However, since it doesn't really have one, I don't think this much of a problem.
Of course, it has a plot in one sense: lots of bad things happen to Gopnik and the phalanx of characters surrounding him who aspire to being one dimensional. From all of this, he learns precisely nothing. Nobody in the film really goes on any kind of journey. And it ends, well, it ends mid-story with no real resolution, except to say that everyone's pretty well doomed.
On his way, he seeks advice, which is completely useless, from a series of Rabbis. It's hard to be sympathetic for him, since he does nothing to change his lot. Not only can you see why his wife leaves him, one struggles to imagine what made her marry him in the first place. I mean, he may be a nice enough guy, but there's nothing more to him. Then again, since there's nothing much to her character either, they're arguably a pretty decent match. This is characterisation of the kind of depth that a reasonably comprehensive analysis of everyone in the film could fit comfortably on the back of a single napkin (and still leave ample space to calculate a fair tip).
Of course, when a film isn't convincing you, all the little niggling things you'd otherwise forgive start to stick out like sore thumbs. Now, I realise academia has changed since the time this film was set, but I'm pretty certain that, even then, tenure wasn't on the cards if you'd published nothing. Why does his son still have to run away from the drug dealer after he's stolen the money he needed from his sister? Come to that, a drug dealer who advances credit! And why is Larry's doctor less determined to get hold of him than the man from the Columbia Record Club, especially given he clearly has terrible news.
Apparently, though, I've totally missed the point. This magnificent cinematic achievement is a clever reworking of the Book of Job. Except, of course, that it isn't. Job has a pretty happy ending all told. In other words, it's a moral with the moral removed. Hmmm. Genius!
The film isn't entirely without redeeming features, though. There are some funny moments - the kid who uses the f-work constantly, the man his wife leaves him for and his hideously ingratiating manner, the first Rabbi's belief that salvation can be located in the parking lot, second Rabbi's story about a man who finds a message engraved on someone's teeth. There's also an opportunity for spotting actors who've worked on Aaron Sorkin shows (there's Adam Arkin, who so superbly played Stanley Keyworth, first introduced to the West Wing to treat Josh for post-traumatic stress, here playing Gopnik's lawyer; Simon Helberg, who crops up as the first Rabbi, had much better opportunity to showcase his talents as one of the cast of the show within a show on Studio 60). The performances are solid enough, though playing such uniformly caricatured roles, nobody is in the slightest danger of stretching any acting muscles.
All told, there are many more rewarding ways to spend a couple of hours.