Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Sari Lennick, Richard Kind, Fred Malamed

There are no two filmmakers working today who are better than the Coen brothers. Their resumes over the past quarter of a decade (which you can check out here and here) remain relatively unparalleled in terms of quality and influence. While some considered them to have lost their collective mojo with Intolerable Cruelty and The Lady Killers, there's no doubt they regained whatever credibility they lost with 2007's Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men, a film I consider to be the best of the decade. They then made that film's polar opposite; the absurd and crowd-pleasing Burn After Reading, featuring Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and John Malkovich in three different but hilarious roles. Two years after taking home the gold statue for No Country, Joel and Ethan returned with A Serious Man, a film the eschews the all star cast and zany antics of their previous comedy and instead takes a smaller, more personal, and even philosophical approach to comedy. It's a film that asks some deep questions (or does it?) about life, but is no less hilarious than their previous comedies.

Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a college physics professor who's on the verge of receiving tenure when his life suddenly falls apart in front of his very eyes. His wife confronts him with news that she's having an affair and wants a divorce, his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is in trouble with the law, a Korean student is blackmailing him in order to receive a passing grade, and an anonymous person is writing letters to the tenure board questioning Larry's "moral turpitude." As the bad news piles up, Larry is increasingly burdened by one question: why?

Being the practicing (practicing, but not orthodox) Jew he is, Larry visits (or attempts to visit) three rabbis. He receives different advice from each, and after the visits he's left only with more questions. As one of the Rabbis says, paraphrasing Jefferson Airplane (whose music bookends the film), "when the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope within you dies...then what?" Larry continues to seek salvation from his existential funk, all while his son gets high before studying for his Bar Mitzvah, his daughter complains about getting a nose job, his beautiful and sultry neighbor tans naked in her backyard, and his friend Sy Abelman (the man his wife is having an affair with) haunts Larry's dreams.

My favorite films are the ones that work on philosophical, moral, or social levels or perhaps attempt to comment on life/society/justice/etc. while also maintaining a high entertainment value. The Coen brothers have mastered that type of film. If you don't want to think too deeply about what you're watching, you don't have to. Make no mistake: this is a layered film, filled with religious metaphors and Jewish iconography, but A Serious Man will make you laugh. It will also make you think - if you let it. And not just about life in general - certainly we've all been in the head-space Larry occupies for most of the film - but about filmmaking as well. How do the Coen brothers balance comedy and philosophy so well? Do they actually believe in these things they propose or is it all a sham? Who are these magnificent actors I'm watching? Why are the Coen brothers always lucky enough to score such a great cast?

One of the bigger snubs from the Academy Awards this year is the absence of Michael Stuhlbarg on the list of Best Actor nominees. Larry Gopnick could easily have been an unsympathetic schlub, deserving of these trials Hashem seems want to put him through. Instead, Larry's an unfortunate every-man, identifiable in his feeling of hopelessness. We never feel sorry for Larry (and it's clear that the Coens don't want us to), but we do understand him. Kudos should also go to Sari Lennick (shockingly, this is her first feature film role) who plays Larry's wife. Again, in a lesser actress's hands Judith could be seen as a conniving, evil witch. But Lennick never lets Judith's betrayal of Larry get to that point.

The performance to really savor, though, comes from Fred Malamed as the aforementioned Sy Abelman. With the visage of Francis Ford Coppola and the body of someone named Sy Ableman, Malamed plays the "anti" other-man. Overly sympathetic (and most likely faking it) towards Larry, Ableman speaks as if always consoling a child, and Malamed's soothing fatherly voice lends itself to one of the funniest performances in the film.

The Coen brothers score another knockout on a technical level as well. Roger Deakins, a constant Coen collaborator, is back (after the brothers went with Emmanuel Lubezki for Burn After Reading) as cinematographer for A Serious Man, and Carter Burwell scores the film. Deakins saturates the film in a warm golden glow, and gives late 60's rural America a nostalgic look and feel. Burwell's score is sparse, but memorable, bringing a certain poignancy to the film even when the screenplay is putting Larry through the comedic ringer.

A screenplay, it should be noted, that is rightfully Academy Award nominated. For all the slack the Coen brothers get about supposedly taking joy in destroying their characters, it's clear that they really love Larry Gopnick. It's also clear that they love to write great dialogue. A Serious Man is completely and utterly quotable. It's also completely and utterly tight in terms writing. While A Serious Man lacks a central story (it's more a series of events that happen), every scene has a direct effect on the next. There's not one ounce of wasted screen time. Also - for bearing such heavy philosophical and religious undertones (I imagine if I was more versed in the Jewish faith I would find even more to love about the film - although those that don't even know what the Torah is can enjoy the film) the movie is fun. It's fun in a way that watching a film crafted by such great filmmakers is fun.

I've included the trailer for A Serious Man after this review. Rarely do trailers capture the feel, tone, and look, and rhythm of the finished product as much as this one does.

1 comment:

  1. I agree, funny, multi-layered film. Right up there with Fargo. Good review.