Regardless of the reception of Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man, one thing is clear: whatever creative or emotional bullshit led to their duo of moderate to mediocre to bad films (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers) – whatever the dust, it’s been shaken loose and they are back on a filmmaking tear. A Serious Man is their most Jewish film (literally), and the humor is almost subterranean. It’s a darkly, philosophically funny movie about Prof. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) and the drama in his life in 1967. It’s also about the irony of his life. My review of A Serious Man after the jump.
Prof Gopnik is married and has two kids. His son Danny (Aaron Wolff) just wants to smoke weed and get through his bar mitzvah, while his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) wants a nose job and isn’t home much if she can help it. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce as she has feelings for Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), but wants a clean divorce (a “get”) so she can re-marry. Larry is about to hit tenure, and runs across a Korean student who wants to bribe him for a better grade, while Larry’s constantly informed that there’s an anonymous letter-writer who is attempting to stymie his advancement. Danny is afraid of a neighbor he owes twenty bucks, with the payback money having been confiscated with his portable radio. The kids seem oblivious to the divorce, but Larry moves into a hotel, and has to deal with Uncle Arthur’s (Richard Kind) eccentricities, which lead to legal troubles.
The film opens with a parable, where a man brings home a man who helped him when no one else would. The man’s wife thinks the guest is a Golem, as the person she sees in front of her she saw pass away years ago, and then stabs the man. The husband wonders if his wife committed murder, and the wife feels vindicated that she rid their house of an evil spirit. And from some of the class lectures and dreams, the Coens set the tone of what they’re doing.
What I found powerful about the film is how I view it as an atheist, in that people like to draw conclusion to their lives based on how events shake out by creating a narrative. There are elements of the film to suggest the Coens might feel a bit different, but what is interesting is that they set the film with that opening parable in the form of a question. In a folktale, the idea of having a golem be real is perfectly acceptable for a story, but would be an act of fantasy in modern age, so if we do not believe in those superstitions now, should we believe in them in a parable? In this interpretation the ending suggests that we are often blinded by petty concerns and troubles from the big picture, and that big picture is going to smack you upside the head. It also opens an interesting question about the role of author in fiction when God is possibly a character. Obviously, there is the expression Deus Ex Machina, but any time a film offers the influence of a god-hand, it opens the door to manipulation versus a practical understand of God, of Old Testament to New Testament. What’s great here is how the Coens play off that with the story of the man with the carvings in his teeth. What does it all means, and do answers make us happy? It’s a profound work, but filled with a sense of the absurdity of life and the small things that makes this minor key, but worth diving into head first.
Universal presents the film on Blu-ray in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1. The transfer is perfect, as to be expected, and the soundtrack is great. Extras include three featurettes “Becoming Serious” (17 min.) and “Creating 1967” (14 min.) go into the making of the film, and some of the ideas behind it, at least as much as the Coens will allow. “”Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys” (2 min.) walks through the phrases and words that are Jewish-culture specific, but for the most part these are easily understandable in the context of the film or living in America.