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Serious Man

A movie directed by the Coen Brothers.

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The Fiddler on the Roof Opening: The Coen Brothers and the roots of Identity

  • Oct 27, 2010
Rating:
+5
Finally, in my chronological journey through the Coen Brothers body of work, I come to the latest of their movies (surely not the last, which would be a cause for mourning).  If you have followed my reviews, you know that I find the core of the work (and the best of it) is about finding and understanding identity (See my review of Burn after Reading for a summary of my reviews to that point)..

In Serious Man, they return to their time (mid 60s), place (Midwest) and ethnic identity (Jewish family life) to mine their roots--but like the best of art in any medium, pointing to the source without showing us every answer.

Larry Gopnick is a physics professor with a wife who wants a divorce, a teenage daughter who washes her hair, a teenage son studying for his bar mitzvah and watching F-Troop, a live-in brother who can't find a job or an apartment, and neighbors on either side who pose special problems.  And that's just his personal life--professionally, he is facing tenure without any publications and with an anonymous letter-writing detractor and dealing with a failing student who alternates between bribery and threats. 

But this is no standard period piece about suburban angst.  The opening sequence is the Coen Brother's bizarre take on a Fiddler on the Roof-like Yiddish folk tale about a mysterious traveler encountered on the road who may be an old friend--or a walking-dead dybbuk.  In the "making of" extra on the Blu-Ray disk, the Brothers jokingly refer to it as the cartoon before the movie, but the question it poses and the way the characters approach finding the answer sets the stage for the body of the movie to come.  When Larry says insistently but plaintively "I'm a serious  . .  . I'm trying to be a serious man.", he has stated the thesis of the movie. 

Later, while dealing with his troublesome student, Larry says, again firmly "Actions have consequences."  When the student responds "Yes, often", Larry answers with the dilemma that frames the thesis:

"No, always.  Actions always have consequences.  In this office, actions have consequences.  Not just in physics, but morally."

When Larry qualifies his sweeping statement by limiting its reach to his office, he is posing the problem that every serious man must face--the world is a place of such scope and chaos that the actions and consequences are beyond our control and capability to understand and sometimes even to endure.(an assessment that would apply equally to another CB masterpiece No Country for Old Men).

But this isn't philosophy class, its a movie, first and always, a truth that the Coens have never forgotten.  The usual crack teaming of Roger Deakins camerawork and Carter Burwell's music (with inspired use of Jefferson Airplane music and quotes by the most unexpected character) makes this a cinematic pleasure worth experiencing on Blu-Ray.  . The 1967 touches are phenomenal, for example in a panoramic shot of the Gopnick's neighborhood of middle-class ranch houses:  the neighbors to the right, a ball-playing deer-hunting father and son Gentiles who just might be secret Jew haters drive a station wagon with a roof rack, the neighbors to the left a red Ford Mustang to match the racy nude sunbathing housewife--and right in the middle, Larry and family, with the totally nondescript sedan.  And on every roof, strapped to the brick chimney, is the TV aerial, that Larry just adjust to bring in F-Troop without fuzz for his son. 

Another pair of amazing visuals helps tell the story of the accelerating pace of actions and consequences:  In a classroom scene early in the movie, Larry explains a deep theory on a small blackboard with simply-drawn analogies in cartoon form and clear and readable formulas.  Later, as he fights frantically to stay above the tide sweeping him away, he shouts his way through the same theory on a impossibly out-of-scale huge blackboard full of undecipherable formulas.   The problems are too large for our rational minds to calculate.

In the hands of a less-capable director, A Serious Man would have been like watching a movie in a foreign language without subtitles for non-Jewish viewers like me.  But the ability of the Coens gives it the universal storytelling power of the best of art. 

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November 04, 2010
Thanks for the review! I'm really looking forward to seeing this!
 
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More A Serious Man reviews
review by . March 16, 2011
I am rather uneducated in the works of the Coens, but the movies I have seen from them have all been damn terrific. This film is no different. This is kind of what I imagine American Beauty would be like, a tale about suburban life and a man's struggle just to make everything in his life work. A Serious Man definitely did deserve its Best Picture nomination last year and I'm surprised Michael Stuhlbarg didn't get a best actor nomination because his performance was spectacular.   …
review by . February 08, 2011
Finally, in my chronological journey through the Coen Brothers body of work, I come to the latest of their movies (surely not the last, which would be a cause for mourning).  If you have followed my reviews, you know that I find the core of the work (and the best of it) is about finding and understanding identity (see my review of Burn After Reading      In Serious Man, they return to their time (mid 60s), place (midwest) and ethnic identity (Jewish family life) to mine …
review by . November 22, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
**** out of ****      "A Serious Man" proves that the Coen Brothers are some of the best two filmmakers living. They have impressed me in the past and they have disappointed me; a nice mix, if you ask me. They have had their triumphs, their successes, and then their lesser efforts. "A Serious Man" is one of their best by all means, being a thought-provoking piece of story-telling with not a boring moment to spare. I was seriously hooked every moment of the …
review by . February 20, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
When Charlie Brown met Job
Why do bad things happen to good people?  After watching A Serious Man, I realized that it isn't so much that only the good people are the ones who have bad things happen to them, but that we care when they do.  We don't care about the bad things that happen to bad people, unless they're an anti hero.       A Serious Man is arguabbly most mature of the Coen Brothers movies, saving the skittish characters and the worst eccentricies for another …
review by . July 09, 2011
This ninth Mike Zoss Production concerns the mounting woes of a hapless, well-meaning physics professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) in late-'60s St. Louis Park, Minnesota. His wife (Sari Lennick) wants to divorce him for a widowed friend (Fred Melamed); his deadbeat brother (Richard Kind) is a criminal burden; a sultry neighbor (Amy Landecker) sunbathes in the buff, while another (Peter Breitmayer) quietly hates his guts; his teenage son is a habitual pothead and his daughter steals money from him to …
review by . July 22, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
What Pompted You to write a Review?      I really like this movie, but its not very well known How was the Plot, Acting, Direction?      Perfect, it was funny, everyone was very good at acting Were You ENTERTAINED?      yes, it was a very interesting story, I never looked at my watch Did It Fulfill Expectations? Hype Level?      I didn't have very high expectations, I knew it was nominated for best picture and …
review by . July 02, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: Nothing at all, nothing      Cons: Every every every little and last thing.      The Bottom Line: Simply awful, no need to say more.      Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie''s plot. Joel and Ethan Coen have sold their souls to a haphazard soulshark. Rather than giving up their whole souls for permanent triumphs, they have bargained to make at least one very bad movie for every very good one. …
review by . February 17, 2010
The Coen Brothers Show Their Versatility, But Leave More to be Desired...
Every time a Coen Brothers film comes out, they seem to go in this bad, good and decent order.  For example take No Country for Old Men; how that movie ever won best picture is beyond me because it was straight up terrible.  Then came Burn After Reading which was really good and funny.  Finally, A Serious Man comes out not to long ago and doesn't get a lot hype but none the less, the film is decent and gets nominated for best picture.  Now, does it deserve a best picture nod? …
Quick Tip by . August 29, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
I thought this would work, but like "Burn After Reading" or "Barton Fink" it let me down. The Bros Coen keep getting more self-hating about their Jewish suburban angst; this curdles their arch narratives. Their smugness given their status as critical darlings contrasts with how Philip Roth or Bernard Malamud's novels from this 60s period managed critique of this oft-critiqued milieu without making you feel cheapened. Parts of this film were great, as in the twists at the …
Quick Tip by . July 24, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Jewish College Professor has his life coming apart at the seams as he copes with what is supposed to be lifes mysteries and too often not finding the right solutions. Fantastic cast and film.
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Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #37
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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Wiki

A Serious Man is a black comedy feature film written, produced, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. It is due to be released on October 2, 2009, in the United States.

The film is set in St. Louis Park, Minnesota in the year 1967, and is intended in some ways to reflect the childhood of the Coen brothers as they recall it.

The protagonist is Larry Gopnik, a Jewish academic living in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in a Minneapolis suburb. The story follows Gopnik's spiritual and existential struggle as his wife Judith contemplates leaving him for his colleague Sy Ableman. Adding to his suffering is his ne'er-do-well brother, Arthur, who lacks the resources and the ability to care for himself and consequently lives on Larry's couch. Larry begins to question the value of his life as he deals with these and other trials, including his son, Danny, who steals money from his wallet to buy marijuana; his daughter, Sarah, who steals to finance a planned nose job; a student who alternately attempts to bribe him for a passing grade and threatens to sue him for defamation (made all the worse because Larry is up for tenure); and a female neighbor who distracts him by sunbathing in the nude. Larry seeks advice from three different rabbis in an attempt to solve his problems and to become an austere and devoted man.
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Details

Release Date: 2009
MPAA Rating: R
DVD Release Date: February 09, 2010
Runtime: 1hr 46min
Studio: Universal Studios
First to Review
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