A Serious Man is a 2009 dark comedy[2] produced, edited and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen from their original screenplay. The film stars Michael Stuhlbarg as a Minnesota Jewish man whose life crumbles both professionally and personally, leading him to questions about his faith. The film attracted a positive critical response, including a Golden Globe nomination for Stuhlbarg, a place on both the American Film Institute's and National Board of Review's Top 10 Film Lists of 2009, and a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture.


 [hide*1 Plot


In a Polish shtetl in the early 20th century, a Jewish man tells his wife that he was helped on his way home by Traitle Groshkover, whom he has invited in for soup. She objects, saying Groshkover is dead, and that the visitor must be a dybbuk. Groshkover (Fyvush Finkel) arrives and laughs off the accusation, but she plunges an icepick into his chest. Bleeding, he exits into the snowy night.[3]

In Minnesota in 1967,[4] Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a professor of physics whose wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), abruptly informs him that she needs a get (a Jewish divorce document) so she can marry widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed).

Three other people live with Larry and Judith. Their son Danny (Aaron Wolff) owes twenty dollars for marijuana to an intimidating Hebrew school classmate, but the bill is hidden in a transistor radio since confiscated by his teacher. Daughter Sarah is always doing her hair. Larry's brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), sleeps on the couch and spends his free time filling a notebook with what he calls "a probability map of the universe".

Larry faces an impending vote on his application for tenure, and his department head (Ari Hoptman) lets slip that anonymous letters have urged the committee to deny him. Clive Park, a student worried about losing his scholarship, meets with Larry in his office to argue he should not fail the class. After he leaves, Larry finds an envelope stuffed with cash. When Larry attempts to return it, Clive's father comes to his house to threaten to sue Larry either for defamation if Larry accuses Clive of bribery, or for keeping the money if he does not give him a passing grade.

At the insistence of Judith and Sy, Larry and Arthur move into a nearby motel. Judith has emptied the couple's bank accounts, leaving Larry penniless, so he enlists the services of a sympathetic divorce attorney (Adam Arkin). Larry learns Arthur faces charges of solicitation and sodomy, despite his previous attendance at "mixers".

To cope with his streak of unfortunate circumstances, Larry turns to his Jewish faith. The two rabbis he consults (Simon Helberg and George Wyner) are by turns obtuse, oblivious and obscure, and his synagogue's senior rabbi is never available. Larry's mental state reaches a breaking point when he and Sy are involved in seemingly simultaneous, but separate, car crashes. Larry is unharmed, but Sy is killed. At Judith's insistence, Larry pays for Sy's funeral.

Larry is proud and moved by Danny's bar mitzvah, unaware of his son's distractions from nerves and marijuana. During the service, Judith apologizes to Larry for all the recent trouble and informs him that Sy liked him so much that he even wrote letters to the tenure committee. Danny meets with the senior rabbi in his office, where the old man – who has had Danny's transistor radio in his desk – quotes almost verbatim from the Jefferson Airplane song "Somebody to Love". He returns the radio and counsels Danny to "be a good boy".

Larry's department head compliments him on Danny's bar mitzvah and hints that he will win tenure. Receiving a large bill from Arthur's criminal lawyer, Larry decides to pass Clive, whereupon Larry's doctor calls, asking to see him immediately about the results of a chest X-ray; at the same moment, Danny's teacher struggles to open the emergency shelter as a massive tornado bears down on the school.

Cast and characters[edit]

  • Michael Stuhlbarg as Lawrence "Larry" Gopnik; an actor relatively unknown to film audiences, Stuhlbarg was cast on the strength of his theatrical work in New York. He initially auditioned for the prologue but was called back to read for the parts of Arthur and Larry, eventually being cast in the lead role.[3]
  • Richard Kind as Arthur Gopnik
  • Sari Lennick as Judith Gopnik; Lennick was inspired by the confidence the Coens had in her; they consulted her on the character details and allowed her to make the character her own.[3]
  • Fred Melamed as Sy Ableman
  • Aaron Wolff as Danny Gopnik
  • Jessica McManus as Sarah Gopnik
  • Alan Mandell as Rabbi Marshak
  • Adam Arkin as Don Milgram
  • George Wyner as Rabbi Nachtner
  • Amy Landecker as Mrs. Vivienne Samsky; in an interview with actress Landecker, she said that the first name of Mrs. Samsky is in fact Vivienne and was based on a real neighbor of the Coen brothers
  • Katherine Borowitz as Mimi Nudell
  • Allen Lewis Rickman as Velvel
  • Yelena Shmulenson as Dora
  • Fyvush Finkel as Traitle Groshkover
  • Simon Helberg as Rabbi Scott Ginsler
  • Andrew S. Lentz as Mark Sallerson
  • Jack Swiler as Howard Altar (boy on bus)
  • Tim Harlan-Marks as Hebrew school bus driver
  • Benjy Portnoe as Ronnie Nudell
  • Brent Braunschweig as Mitch Brandt
  • Ari Hoptman as Arlen Finkle
  • Michael Lerner as Solomon Schlutz
  • David Kang as Clive
  • Steve Park as Clive's father
  • Peter Breitmayer as Mr. Brandt

Open auditions for the roles of Danny and Sarah were held on May 4, 2008, at the Sabes Jewish Community Center in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, one of the scheduled shooting locations for the film. Open auditions for the role of Sarah were also held in June 2008 in Chicago, Illinois.[3][5]


Considerable attention was paid to the setting; it was important to the Coens to find a neighborhood of original-looking suburban rambler homes as they would have appeared in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, in the late 1960s. Locations were scouted in nearby communities EdinaRichfieldBrooklyn Center, and Hopkins[6] before a suitable location was found in Bloomington.[7] The look of the film is partly based on the Brad Zellar book Suburban World: The Norling Photographs, a collection of photographs of Bloomington in the 1950s and 60s.[8]

Longtime collaborator Roger Deakins rejoined the Coen brothers as cinematographer, following his absence from Burn After Reading. This was his tenth film with the Coen brothers.[9] Costume designer Mary Zophres returned for her ninth collaboration with the directors.[9]

The "folk tale" that serves as the prologue was written by the Coen brothers. They claim the story has no function except to set the proper tone for what follows.[3] Roger Ebert suggests that its married couple may have brought a curse on Larry by inviting the dybbuk (Traitle Groshkover) across their threshold.[10] A portrait of Groshkover is glimpsed on the wall inside Rabbi Marshak's office later in the film.

Location filming began on September 8, 2008, in Minnesota. An office scene was shot at Normandale Community College in Bloomington. The film also used a set built in the school's library, as well as small sections of the second floor science building hallway. The synagogue is the B'nai Emet Synagogue in St. Louis Park. The Coen brothers also shot some scenes in St. Olaf College's old science building because of its similar period architecture.[11][12] Scenes were also shot at the Minneapolis legal offices of Meshbesher & Spence, the name of whose founder and president, Ronald I. Meshbesher, is mentioned as the criminal lawyer recommended to Larry in the film.[13] Filming wrapped on November 6, 2008, after 44 days, ahead of schedule and within budget.[14]

Anachronisms are evident in the film with references to two albums, Carlos Santana's Abraxas and Creedence Clearwater Revival's Cosmo's Factory, both of which were released in 1970.

The ending credits contain an Easter egg: "No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture."


The film's original music was composed by Carter Burwell (who has composed the music for all the Coens' movies except O Brother, Where Art Thou?). The soundtrack included several songs from the Jefferson Airplane albumSurrealistic Pillow, including "Somebody to Love", "Today", "Comin' Back to Me", and "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds". The soundtrack also featured "Machine Gun" from Band of Gypsys' live album Band of Gypsys, and some pieces of Yiddish music including Mark Warshawsky's "Dem Milner's Treren" performed by Sidor Belarsky.


The film had a limited release on October 2, 2009, in the United States. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival[15] on September 12, 2009.[16]

A Serious Man was released on DVD and Blu-ray in North America on February 9, 2010.

Box office performance[edit]

Film Release date Box office revenue Box office ranking Budget Reference
United States United States International Worldwide All time United States All time worldwide
A Serious Man October 2009 $9,228,768 $22,201,566 $31,430,334 #3,818 Unknown $7,000,000[17] [18]

As of February 10, 2010, it has had worldwide gross earnings of $31,312,437[1]

Critical reception[edit]

Film Rotten Tomatoes Metacritic Entertainment Weekly
A Serious Man 89% (194 reviews)[19] 79/100 (35 reviews)[20] A-[21]

It has received mostly positive reviews from critics, with an aggregate score of 89% from Rotten Tomatoes, based on 194 reviews.[22] Roger Ebert, of the Chicago Sun-Times, rated the film four out of four stars, feeling that it "bears every mark of a labor of love,"[10] and Variety's Todd McCarthy commented that "the Coens' filmmaking skills are sharply attentive," and that A Serious Man is "the kind of picture you get to make after you've won an Oscar".[23] Claudia Puig ofUSA Today writes, "A Serious Man is a wonderfully odd, bleakly comic and thoroughly engrossing film. Underlying the grim humor are serious questions about faith, family, mortality and misfortune."[24] Time critic Richard Corlissdescribes it as "disquieting" and "haunting."[25] Christy Lemire called it "the Coens' most thoughtful and personal film" and gave it three-and-a-half stars out of four.[26]

The St. Petersburg Times's Steve Persall wrote that the main character would remind Bible readers of the Book of Job, "but even Job eventually caught a break".[27] The Coens themselves stated that the "germ" of the story was a rabbi from their adolescence: a "mysterious figure" who had a private conversation with each student at the conclusion of their religious education.[28] The Wall Street Journal'Joe Morgenstern disliked what he saw as misanthropy in the film, saying that "...their caricatures range from dislikable through despicable, with not a smidgeon of humanity to redeem them."[29] David Denby from The New Yorker enjoyed the look and feel of the film, but found fault with the script and characterization: "A Serious Man, like Burn After Reading, is in their bleak, black, belittling mode, and it's hell to sit through... As a piece of movie-making craft, A Serious Man is fascinating; in every other way, it's intolerable."[30]


[1][2]Richard Kind holds the Robert Altman Award given to the film at the Independent Spirit Awards in Los Angeles

Stuhlbarg was awarded the Chaplin Virtuoso Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and nominated for Best Actor in the 67th Annual Golden Globe Awards. Stuhlbarg, Kind, Melamed and Lennick were nominated for a Gotham Award for Best Performance by an Ensemble Cast. Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, casting directors Ellen Chenoweth and Rachel Tenner, along with actors Kind, Lennick, Melamed, Stuhlbarg, Wolff and McManus were awarded the Robert Altman Spirit Award by Film Independent for Excellence in Collaborative Cinematic Achievement by Directors, Casting Directors and an Ensemble Cast. Deakins received the Best Cinematography awards at both the 2009 Hollywood Awards and the 2009 San Francisco Film Critics Circle Awards, as well as the Nikola Tesla Award at theSatellite Awards and the Best Cinematography award at the Independent Spirit AwardsA Serious Man was nominated for an MPSE Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing: Dialogue and ADR in a Feature Film.

The Coen brothers were awarded Best Original Screenplay at the 2009 National Board of Review Awards and Best Original Screenplay from the National Society of Film Critics Awards 2009, and have been nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Original Screenplay and the BAFTA for Best Original Screenplay. A Serious Man was nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay in the Broadcast Film Critics Association's 15th Annual Critics' Choice Awards, and by the Boston Society of Film Critics, Best Picture by the Chicago Film Critics Association. The film was listed as one of the ten best films of 2009 by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, the American Film Institute, the Satellite Awards and the Southeastern Film Critics Association Awards.

A Serious Man was nominated for Best Original Screenplay (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen) and Best Picture at the 82nd Academy AwardsBBC News called it "one of the less talked about nominees" for Best Picture; they also noted that lead actor Stuhlbarg received his invitation to the ceremony at the last minute.