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Serious Man, A

Universal // R // February 9, 2010
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Casey Burchby | posted February 2, 2010 | E-mail the Author

A Serious Man is the Coen brothers' fourteenth feature film. It is a new treatment of themes that have characterized much of their work. The thematic material I'm referring to is difficult to describe, because the Coens embrace the ambiguous and avoid the didactic. The Coens' dark and often pessimistic worldview has something in common with that usually ascribed to Stanley Kubrick, although the Coens' humor and style - among other things - make their work distinct from Kubrick's and everyone else's. A Serious Man takes these pet themes - many of which show up in different forms in their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, and other Coen films - and re-casts them in a new milieu, shedding light on certain things having to do with inevitability, fate, suburbia, and personal integrity. The Minnesota natives, in a way, seem to be providing an "answer" of sorts to that other storytelling son of their home state, Garrison Keillor. Whereas Keillor's witty, nostalgic homilies are fond and generous, the Coens' film is a metaphysical mailbomb disguised as a love letter.

After a short, fable-like pre-credits sequence in an unnamed 19th century European shtetl, we are introduced to Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), who lives, circa 1967, in the suburbs of the Twin Cities. Gopnik teaches college physics, and is currently being considered for a tenured position. But his stable middle-class life quickly begins to unravel. His wife asks for a divorce - a ritual Jewish divorce no less - so she can marry the fatuous Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed). One of Gopnik's students tries to bribe, and subsequently blackmail, him. His brother Arthur (Richard Kind) has been sleeping on Larry's couch for a year, writing a numerological work called The Mentaculus. As things pile up, Larry searches for meaning and wisdom from a series of rabbis, none of whom provide him with any particular insight. It becomes increasingly clear to Larry that he must take some sort of action to assert his own will over the direction of his life. When Gopnik finally gathers the courage to make such a decision, it turns out to be one that foolishly tempts fate.

As with most Coen films, we find ourselves in a carefully arranged and somewhat hermetically sealed world. The photography and set design are fussy, stylish, and appealing. Gopnik's milieu is well-ordered, predictable suburbia. He is, in many ways, living the American dream. Facing an onslaught of personal and professional challenges, he finds that he must answer to himself - to explain to himself the increasingly chaotic circumstances that crop up around him. We see that Larry's experience of the American dream doesn't usually require such self-reflection - intellectualization was never a part of the equation, not even for a professor of physics. Larry is therefore stranded amid the crumbling ruins of his life, clueless as to why this is all happening to him.

The Coens deliver sharp rebukes here about the lack of introspection in everyday American life. Gopnik, in his attempt to seek the ancient wisdom guarded by his rabbis, is stonewalled. The first is a young man only capable of drawing metaphors around a parking lot, and the second tells a tantalizing story that ends without obvious meaning or significance. Gopnik is alone, alone, alone.

Spoiler alert!

Things seem irretrievably disastrous, when, in the movie's penultimate scene, Gopnik has a piece of good news. This gives him a jolt of something like confidence, and he proceeds to make a fateful decision. Then, immediately thereafter, he receives a phone call from his doctor, who asks him to come in and review some X-rays. At the same moment, Gopnik's son and his class are taken from the classroom toward his school's storm shelter, as an enormous tornado rushes through the Twin Cities.

End spoiler alert

There is something powerful here about tempting fate, and the unutterably complex ramifications of seemingly simple actions. The Coen brothers get at these things obliquely enough, always maintaining an artful distance - and the space between is filled with loving design, oddball characters (performed extremely well by a diverse cast), memorable humor, and sustained, growing tension. It's a film that invites discussion and interpretation, while striking a sonorous and nervous-making chord in the quiet heart of American life.


The Video
Focus Features presents A Serious Man in an enhanced 1.78:1 transfer that looks outstanding. The film's beautiful photography by frequent Coen collaborator Roger Deakins sparkles. Blacks are rock-solid. The 1960s-flavored set design and costumes brim with detail. The image is outstanding.

The Audio
As with most Coen brothers films, the soundtrack is extremely important and boasts a very broad dynamic range. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is excellent, with music and sound effects used boldly and often. In fact, Carter Burwell's score is used as a sound effect as often as it is purely melodious. Ambient effects are plentiful across the active soundstage. It's a very engaging track.

The Extras
Bonus features are light but interesting. Becoming Serious (17:04) is a behind-the-scenes featurette that includes a fair amount of discussion by the Coens themselves as to the origins of the film's story and their experience making the film. Creating 1967 (13:43) covers the selection of the film's location and the extensive design work that went into the period sets, costumes, props, and d├ęcor. Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys (2:14) is a short piece that explains the uses of those two languages in the film.

Final Thoughts

A Serious Man is another challenging, memorable film from the Coen brothers - one that invites and rewards multiple viewings. Deep-set themes are elucidated carefully and with great humor. Excellent performances help carry another Coen catalog of life's many strangenesses and the bizarre logic of their existence. Only the lack of substantive bonus content prevents me from awarding this film DVD Talk's highest rating. Highly recommended.

Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.

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Highly Recommended

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