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Serious Man

A movie directed by the Coen Brothers.

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Misfortunes of a Midwestern Mensch

  • Jul 9, 2011
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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 save up for a nose job; his shot at tenure is threatened by accusations from an anonymous party. That's just the start of it. Throughout the course of the film, matters turn from bad to worse as natural and human disasters, malicious acts and this latter-day Job's spineless inability to cope with these misfortunes slowly transform his life into a perpetual catastrophe.

It must be argued that Joel and Ethan Coen are the foremost filmic authority on American stupidity and failure. While Burn After Reading drove the idiocy and incompetence of its characters home with all the subtlety of a chopping hatchet, this is a considerably more subtle character study. The professor is intelligent and capable, but the invertebrate manner in which he allows life to happen to him is every bit as amusing and maddening as the gross stupidity of the prior feature. While his sincere faith in G-d, his religious elders and his own culture is quite admirable, all he receives from the rabbis who will meet with him are pointless stories and inane platitudes.

Stuhlbarg couldn't be bettered as the lovable, bewildered nebbish, but that's almost redundant - the whole cast (most of whom are relative unknowns) is phenomenal. Melamed is also particularly fun as the quietly overbearing, silver-tongued buddy who's obviously been poking his pal's spouse for quite a while. Not a single role hasn't at least a few laugh-out-loud moments; the Coens have such an enduring knack for finding humor in the silliest expressions and most awkward moments.

Even more impressive than the cast is the astonishing period detail, which nearly rivals Scorsese's efforts. It's as though the Coens (themselves St. Louis Park natives) plucked James Lileks' memories from his skull and tossed them onto the screen. Shot mostly in St. Louis Park and neighboring Bloomington and Minneapolis, everything's looks exactly as it should: the hair, the rambler homes, the restaurants and grocery stores, all the gloriously tacky interior decoration and clothing and appliances. What's especially impressive is the amount of attention invested to ensure that every actor looks and sounds as though they're from the period, right down to the minutia of the vernacular. If nothing else, A Serious Man is a period film of a quality that so many filmmakers grasp for and never achieve.

It's nice to see that Roger Deakins is back on board with the Coens as DP and camera operator. Although Emmanuel Lubezki's photography in Burn After Reading yielded beautiful visuals of striking contrast, Deakins has a gift for coaxing such vivid color from his scenes without resorting to oversaturation, and his talent for rendering shady imagery is nearly unparalleled. Too few living cinematographers (Darius Khondji and Wally Pfister come to mind) can generate the kind of dazzling shots that Deakins is known for.
Carter Burwell's score this time around is again pretty minimal. Most of the music herein consists of selections from Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix, and a few Yiddish folk songs.

Although it's consistently funny, perfectly performed and shot with an astounding eye for detail, A Serious Man lags at least once too often, and very badly besides. I usually marvel at how well the Coens pace their films; this is probably their most deliberate effort since Blood Simple, and the more sluggish sequences do little to impart any weight to the narrative. There are some great moments - in particular, a bizarre, hilarious, exquisitely edited anecdote concerning the mystical teeth of a Jewish dentist's gentile patient. Whenever anything is actually happening, it's always either funny or astounding, but so many scenes are padded for no apparent reason that the movie too often feels longer than it is. In spite of its faults, it's well worth seeing - at least there's plenty to look at that's sure to evoke nostalgia in the heart of any boomer when nothing much is going on.

The DVD edition is what you'd expect - picture and sound are unobjectionably fine, and the menus and scene selections are very easy to navigate. Subtitles and audio tracks for English, Spanish and French are available. Yet again, the French dub is superior to its Spanish equivalent; in the latter, the voice actor for Stuhlbarg's character has an uncharacteristically, unsurprisingly deep voice.
This is the third consecutive Coen disc to include three featurettes, so never let it be said that Universal has many surprises in store. Becoming Serious is a typical, competently assembled documentary consisting mostly of interviews with the Coens, cast and crew in which they discuss the film's story, themes and a number of experiences related to the production's shoot. Creating 1967 is much more interesting - a fairly involved examination of the sets created, cars obtained, houses renovated and clothing tailored to enact the period. I'm just old enough to remember the year-to-year distinctions of zeitgeist that slowly dissolved from its fullest pungence from beginning of the postwar era until its quiet extinction in the mid-'90s. Here, it's mentioned that if the film took place a couple of years later, everything would have to look different. Isn't that the truth! Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys utilizes excerpts from numerous scenes in order to provide definitions for Yiddish words spoken therein. Most of these are familiar, but I never bothered to ask anyone what "tsuris" meant. Now I know what all the kvetching is about when that one's thrown around.

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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 . October 27, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
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 …
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 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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Robert Buchanan ()
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I'm a bibliophile, ailurophile, inveterate aggregator, dedicated middlebrow and anastrophizing syntax addict. My personality type is that of superlative INTJ.
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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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Release Date: 2009
MPAA Rating: R
DVD Release Date: February 09, 2010
Runtime: 1hr 46min
Studio: Universal Studios
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