A SERIOUS MAN
Review by Gordon Justesen
Stars: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard
Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Adam Arkin, Amy Landecker
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 106 Minutes
Release Date: February 9, 2010
“Please, I need help…”
After thirteen films in a remarkable twenty five year period, Oscar winning filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen have finally arrived at the film that is their truest labor of love project to date. Now just take a minute and reflect on all the strikingly original tales they’ve brought to the screen. Bottom line, when the Coen Brothers label something as a “passion project”, the result is going to be unlike anything we’ve ever seen, for better or for worse.
And as fate would have it, A Serious Man might just be the Coen’s most brilliant cinematic achievement to date. I say these bold words even as I think about how astonished I was on my first viewings of Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo and No Country for Old Men. I’m reminded of my review of The Departed when I said that Martin Scorsese had possibly done the unthinkable and made a film even greater than GoodFellas.
But I can honestly state this; no other film from the Coens (or any film in recent memory for that matter) has delivered such a potent effect while watching it. That effect only grew stronger at the final frame, and has grown even more so in the months since I saw it in theaters. To me, this film isn’t just flat out brilliant but important as well.
The very construction of the story is also extremely unique. By setting it in their very own stomping ground (St. Louis Park, Minnesota), circa 1967, the Coens bring a most personal touch for what is essentially a retelling of The Book of Job. And for my money, no other film has given a more reflective image of Job than physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg).
Larry’s life is falling apart in a way no human should ever have to endure. In what seems like just a few minutes time following his introduction, we see him falling victim to a laundry list of unfortunate circumstances. Basically, anyone who thinks they have it bad in life will take one look at Larry’s situation and think the exact opposite almost instantly.
It all starts when one of Larry’s students attempts to bribe him for a better midterm grade (which will later develop into a blackmail scheme), which is the absolute last thing he can afford to be caught up in as he is being considered for tenure. His wife asks for a divorce, having found a better suitor in the classy and condescending Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who tells Larry that it’s best for him to move out of his own house and take up residence at the local Jolly Roger.
Added to that, Larry’s son seems more concerned with watching F-Troop and listening to Jefferson Airplane than preparing for his upcoming bah mitzvah, and his daughter is stealing money from him in order to pay for a nose job. One set of neighbors seem to constantly give him the evil eye while the wife of another neighbor seems to sending him signals of temptation via nude sunbathing. And to top it all off, he can never seem to rid himself of his brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), who had been taking up residence at Larry’s home for the past year.
Once all of these problems come crashing down on Larry at the speed of a hurricane, he sees no other choice but to seek out answers from a series of Rabbis. He does receive a little insight from each visit, but absolutely no answers to the question he’s most concerned about: “Why does God have it in for me?” What’s troubling Larry the most is the fact that he hasn’t done anything wrong, and has made every attempt to live life as nothing more than a serious man.
And it’s those themes that resonate with me still after seeing three viewings of the film. The very notion of bad things happening to us, no matter how innocent or good natured we tend to be, is pretty much one of the most important things one can think about in life. The Coen Brothers explore this theme in a style only they could pull off, tying in such things as The Uncertainty Principle during one of Larry’s classes.
It’s been quite a while since I witnessed a performance that astonished me so much that I immediately found it to be “the performance of the year”, which is exactly what newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg delivers. Rarely have I seen a piece of acting so utterly perfect. In bringing to life a character who is experiencing the worst set of circumstances imaginable, Stuhlbarg is absolutely brilliant in convincing us that he’s right at the edge of a meltdown for the entire film, especially in my favorite scene where he is on the phone with the Columbia Record Club, following a car accident, and insisting he never became a member.
What blew my mind the most was the film’s ending which, like the one in No Country for Old Men, is certainly going to divide people. I happen to think that the way the Coens choose to end this film is downright fantastic, and it’s even more so on repeat viewings once you catch onto little details you may have missed the first time. It’s the absolute perfect finish for what has to be the bleakest film yet from the Coens, which is really saying a lot.
Not only is A Serious Man one of the best films of 2009, but one of the top ten films of the past decade. I am more grateful than ever that the Coen Brothers had their big Oscar win a couple years ago, because if that had not happened then a film like this would never have gotten made. It is their most brilliant accomplishment to date, and a film that I seriously believe will stand the test of time.
With the Coens directing and Roger Deakins handling the cinematography, it would be foolish to expect anything less than the fantastic picture quality on this Universal Blu-ray release. The image detail is astounding from beginning to end and provides so much to absorb in the 1080p. Color tones are also of A+ quality, as usual with a Coen Brothers film. It’s very fitting that the best offering yet from the Coens manages to get the best looking presentation of any of their films.
This is perhaps the most dialogue driven of any Coen Brothers film, but the DTS HD mix still delivers a most effective sound presentation. The dialogue delivery itself is of pure top notch quality. The music in the film, which includes outstanding uses of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” in addition to Carter Burwell’s tremendous score, is a tremendous highlight. And several dark moments in the film (it wouldn’t be a Coen Brothers film without them) also play off incredibly well.
Included are two behind the scenes featurettes; “Becoming Serious”, which delves into the Coens personal connection to the film and its setting, and “Creating 1967, which takes a look at the set pieces used in the film. Lastly, there is a most awesome feature called “Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys”, which runs down definitions of the many Jewish terms mentioned throughout the film.
If the Coen Brothers manage to make a film greater than A Serious Man, they will have pulled off the impossible. This is simply a brilliant work of cinematic art, displaying the brothers at the true height of their creative powers and a purely riveting acting revelation in Michael Stuhlbarg. It may not be a film for everyone, but it definitely demands your attention!