February 6, 2010


After 25 years in the industry, Joel and Ethan Coen have filmmaking down to a fine art.  And as such, A Serious Man plays like a meticulously orchestrated symphony.

With equal parts reverence for and mockery of suburban Jewish society in the 1960s, A Serious Man is unlike any other movie from 2009.  Then again, each and every one of the Coen brothers’ films stands out from its contemporaries.  In this updated Job story, Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a middle-aged Jewish physics professor who doesn’t know how good he’s got it until his world comes crashing down at his feet.  The film hits DVD this Tuesday, and it’s definitely one for the collection.  Follow the jump to see why.

a_serious_man_poster_joel_ethan_coen_michael_stuhlbarg_01.jpgThough it might be a stretch to call him happy at the outset of the film, Larry is certainly comfortable with his roots planted in midwestern suburban America.  The dream begins to crumble at the edges, however, when Larry’s wife asks for a “get,” or a divorce within the Jewish community; though truthfully, this is only the beginning of Larry’s woes.  The film is punctuated by Larry’s visits to various local rabbis (Job’s three friends, for those following the parallel), who are full of more wisdom than even they can comprehend.

Now, you don’t need me to tell you that this is a good movie.  The Academy’s already done that for you by nominating it for best picture.  A lot of critics are calling A Serious Man a good film.  Many fewer, however, are saying it’s among the Coens’ best.  As a fan of (almost) the whole Coen catalogue, and as one who’s seen this film three times already (it just gets better and better), I’m saying it’s among their absolute best.

Admittedly, the DVD’s bonus features are slim.  There are three featurettes and no commentary tracks.  The first, “Becoming Serious,” features a lot of cast and crew patting one another on the back, and can be skipped entirely.  The second, as the title “Creating 1967” suggests, is about the film’s art direction and set design, and is really quite interesting.  On a first viewing of the film, it’s easy to overlook the effort and attention to detail that goes into crafting a period piece, even one that only turns the clock back 40 years.  This featurette brings design to the forefront in a fascinating, informative way.

The third and shortest of the featurettes is really pretty nifty.  Titled “Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys,” it’s a brief video glossary of foreign terms used in the film, from the known — Torah, which is composed of the five books of Moses — to the unknown — tzaddik, which means, well, a serious man (“a righteous person in Jewish tradition”).  Curiously absent is the Yiddish word “dybbuk,” meaning “ghost,” which is used liberally in the prologue without translation.  Through context, these terms are rather easy to piece together, so this featurette is easily watched before the film without ruining much plot, or after the film to enhance understanding.

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As this review suggests, A Serious Man is a very Jewish film.  There are references to the Jewish community that are not vital to the enjoyment/understanding of the film, but will certainly be beneficial to those in the know.  Having some Jewish ancestry, I thoroughly adored A Serious Man and all if its religious and cultural references, some of which may be lost on “goy” audiences who might find the film markedly less entertaining.

Nonetheless, I’m sticking to my guns when I say A Serious Man is a great example of both Coen and 2009 excellence.  I generally recommend it to any fan of quality cinema, and specifically to Coen Bros fans. However, bear in mind, A Serious Man features the Coen aesthetic in full force, from the carefully labored pacing down to the anticlimactic narrative, so if you’re not a fan of their style, this film won’t turn you into one.  All the same, it — like Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, and Burn After Reading before it — is a Coen coup.

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