A Serious Man (2009) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language, some sexuality, nudity and brief violence
Running time: 105 min.
Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Aaron Wolff, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind, Jessica McManus, Adam Arkin, Peter Breitmayer, George Wyner, Michael Lerner
Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Review published January 23, 2010
Joel and Ethan Coen (Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men) set their Kafkaesque morality tale in 1967 in Minnesota, where a Jewish physics professor, Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg, The Grey Zone), a lifelong mensch on the verge of seeing his secure life finally gain permanent ground by obtaining tenure at his school sees his life begin to unravel when his wife (Lennick) and mother of his two children announces that she's leaving him for someone else.
When it rains it pours, as Larry's loser of a brother (Kind, The Wild) won't leave, his son (Wolff) can't keep out of trouble, and his daughter (McManus) is repeatedly pilfering money from under his nose -- and then even his tenure is in question when anonymous letters start coming in questioning his character, made murky by the fact that a student may be trying to bribe him into giving him a passing grade and threatening defamation for the accusation. With no one to talk to, Larry counts on his religion to see him through some very troubled waters, only to find that answers to life's problems aren't as sure as those of the mathematical equations he teaches.
The Coen Brothers explore the nature of anxiety in another one of their trademark black comedies, as we watch a slow motion crash of a man's life, not dissimilar to the story of Job that is regularly preached by the very rabbis who offer Larry little solace in his time of great need. The Coens' story may not entirely hit home with mainstream audiences, but their skill at delivering tension mixed with humor, as well as their eye for acting talent, keeps A Serious Man in the realm of a more sophisticated comedy for those who appreciate looking beneath the surface for more somber life themes.
Solid performances abound, with Stuhlbarg deftly displaying a subtle slow burn, and supporting players like Fred Melamed as Judith's insincerely schmoozy lover add to the uncomfortable laughs throughout. Carter Burwell (Twilight, In Bruges) also delivers one of his best scores, which is saying something, as he accentuates the film's most profound moments brilliantly. It will probably rank as the most personal of the Coen Brothers' movies, as it explores their Jewish heritage and their Minnesota upbringing, and as such, makes for more revealing viewing for their die-hard fans.
Ultimately, A Serious Man works best for the thematic material more so than it works as a story. Many viewers will be particularly off put by a feeling that the often bleak tale lacks a resolution to all of the tension, particularly through an ending that raises more questions than answers (it may help to know the story of Job to understand the significance of the final shot). It's all in the life lessons one draws from the film that A Serious Man will prove its worth. Those looking for big laughs, compelling drama, or a tightly woven story may find it a little underwhelming, and those who prefer conventional movies will likely find it more than a little boring. However. if you can find catharsis in a man trying his best to hold himself together amid trying circumstances, or can relate to its existential (perhaps even nihilistic) message that the quest to find meaning to life keeps one from living it, you'll discover richer rewards.
©2010 Vince Leo