Pros: Perfect script, cast, photography, editing. Intelligent thought provoker that might be the Coen Brothers' best.
Cons: Might be beyond the mainstream
A Serious Man (2009)
Written & Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Wagner Lennick, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolff
I’d love to start out with a statement like, “A Serious Man” is The Coen Brothers’ greatest work to date. It is an excellent film, but with a filmography that includes “Fargo”, “The Big Lebowski” and “No Country For Old Men”, that’s a tough statement to make. What’s unarguable however is that “A Serious Man” is The Coen Brothers’ most personal movie to date, and one which they could probably have only made after three decades of carving out their own genre. It’s a potential masterpiece but one that couldn’t have been made by anyone else, and one that probably the Coens themselves couldn’t have written earlier in their careers, nor could audiences have so widely accepted it.
Most of “A Serious Man” takes place in a 1967 mid-west Jewish suburb, itself hinting greatly at The Coen Brothers formative years. Before that, however, we get a prologue set years ago in Poland. Acted out in subtitled Yiddish, it’s an old tale of a husband who unwittingly invites a dybbuk (a demon) into his home. There’s an air of doom and tragedy about the tale, but its relationship to the bigger picture is left to personal interpretation. And so, introduced by a little cranked up Jefferson Airplane, we arrive in the 1960’s. The “serious man” in the title is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a good God-fearing Jew who works as a physics professor and heads a family of four. He’s pretty sure that he’s done right in the eyes of the Lord, especially when tested by a bribe offering, failed Asian student.
Suddenly however Larry’s life starts to become incredibly strained. His wife announces that she’s leaving him for another man, his kids are self-interested and unsupportive, his brother lives off of his goodwill, anonymous letters appear at the school suggesting moral turpitude, the Asian student’s father shows up threatening legal action and the next door neighbor is a gun sporting redneck, probably an anti-Semite. Larry doesn’t understand why all this is happening to him. Even a chance rooftop sighting of a neighbor sunbathing naked leads to a blackout, further adding to his personal misery. “You should talk to the rabbi,” is the universal suggestion. What Larry gets from the rabbis however is nothing more than cryptic parables and more questions than answers.
As such the movie seems to be an existential puzzle split between the worlds of religion and science. Larry’s a mathematician and a scientist, convinced that there’s a solution to everything. In a witty side story his brother is devising a life solving algorithm, which might paint him as delusional but it’s a formula that certainly works when tested at the cards table. The rabbis of course are telling him that life’s not about finding the answers. There’s a cute parable about a dentist who finds a Hebrew inscription on a patients teeth, the meaning of which is lost on Larry and will probably only become apparent to most after some post movie reflection.
To try to explain the movie to anyone who hasn’t seen it is about as futile as Larry’s quest for truth. Many have compared it to the book of Job, a man immensely tested by the wrath of God. Job’s torment is a little more intense than that of Larry’s but the Old Testament parodies are certainly poignant. In essence I think that the Coens were trying to capture an impression of what it was like for them, growing up as God-fearing Jews in 1960’s America.
But while life might be all doom and gloom for our serious man, it’s one that the observer will find highly amusing, in a typical Coen Brothers black comedy kind of way. When I’m thinking of Larry, I can’t help but think about the tormented character that John Malkovich played in Burn After Reading. It’s not fair on Larry because he’s a better man than that, but the way the problems mount up and Larry carries them like a tremendous burden becomes increasingly amusing. Surrounding him of course are a host of peripheral, eccentric characters and sub-stories that you sense all had to be based on observations from The Coen Brothers’ youth. To explain the characters or the movie further would be too ambitious and of course I don’t want to give too much away.
One thing the Coens do really well here is not to make their cast bigger than the movie. It’s a whole host of unfamiliar names, some you might recognize but not be able to pinpoint, but most you won’t. As the lead, Michael Stuhlbarg couldn’t be more perfect. His movie resume is limited, with most of his work taking place on the stage. For the most part he’s expressionless and tacit about his problems, but he’s also great as he gets sucked in to the point of meltdown by the unbearable stress of it all. Other highlights include Richard Kind as Larry’s brother and Fred Melamed as his wife’s patronizing, avuncular lover. So ostentatious is Melamed’s character in fact that he even steals the movie’s title for himself at one point. Not only is he trying to fool Larry, but he’s also trying to fool us, the viewers.
With their own puzzling editing transitions, and some master photography from regular collaborator Roger Deakins, “A Serious Man” is another great piece of production. I couldn’t help but admire such gems as a scene where the camera, positioned behind its subject’s shoulder, partially shoots through that person’s glasses. We see the big picture in almost complete clarity, except for one corner which is filtered through the glasses. Only The Coen Brothers could think of illustrating what is a question of perspectives in this way.
In the end “A Serious Man” is a great piece of Coen Brothers’ movie making in every regard. The writing is exceptional, the humor is incisive, and the production is typically creative. It’s also a thought provoking movie that will probably have viewers discussing its meaning long after the credits roll. To me the best clue seems to be an opening quote (long forgotten by the end) from Rashi:
“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”
In other words, “don’t take it so serious, man!”
Verdict: 5 Stars Essential Viewing
The Best (and Worst) Movies of 2009 So Far:
A Serious Man ; In The Loop ; District 9 ; Ths Stoning of Soraya M. ; The Hangover ; Drag Me To Hell ; Home
Away We Go ; Taking Chance ; The Brothers Bloom ; Whip It ; Zombieland ; The Informant! ; Sugar ; Tyson ; 9 ; (500) Days of Summer ; Moon ; Bruno ; The Hurt Locker ; Tokyo! ; Star Trek ; Lymelife; The Soloist ; Blessed is the Match ; Defiance ; Valkyrie ; I Love You, Man
The Boys Are Back ; The Invention of Lying ; Surrogates ; Adventureland ; Funny People ; Public Enemies ; Departures (Okuribito) ; State of Play ; Sunshine Cleaning ; The Great Buck Howard ; Watchmen
Paranormal Activity ; Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant ; Lesbian Vampire Killers ; Extract ; Inglourious Basterds ; A Perfect Getaway ; Terminator Salvation ; Taken ; The Unborn