It took me a while to realize this, but it finally hit me a few days ago why Michael Stuhlbarg‘s brilliant lead performance in A Serious Man doesn’t seem to be getting enough traction as a Best Actor candidate.

Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man.

It’s not a matter of how good he is at portraying Larry Gopnik, a stressed and perplexed Jewish family man in mid ’60s Minnesota whom God clearly has no affection for. Stuhlbarg is perfect — every line and expression is dead-on. But the reality is that most people (including film industry professionals) don’t respond all that strongly to talent and craft. They respond emotionally to the character being portrayed. And the fact seems to be that people don’t seem to like Larry Gopnik for being too whiny and weak-willed.

In day-to-day reality most people trudge along like Gopnik, their heads down, hoping for the best and prepared for the worst. But they don’t want to see people like themselves when they go to films. They want to see fighters, rebels — men and women who stand up. Gopnik isn’t a fighter — he sits there and repeatedly bends over and takes it, asking “why me?” or, more to the point, “why does God hate me so much?” Answer: because God feels like it. He can do anything he wants, and sometimes it amuses him to torture this or that person, or allow tens of thousands (or millions) to be slaughtered during wars.

Larry Gopnik is a walking embodiment of the realization that suffering and misfortune are random and pointless things that happen to good and bad people for no apparent reason. And people hate that life is like this, despite attempts by millions of us to light candles and be joyous and creative and call glasses of water half-full rather than half-empty. And so they are punishing Michael Stuhlbarg accordingly.