I saw this film last week, and have wanted to share it with you all for some time now. The only problem is that I don’t quite know what to say about A Serious Man. So instead of rambling, I thought I’d take a serious look at the latest from Joel and Ethan Coen.
The Coen brothers have been on a bit of a hot streak as of late. After disappointing films like Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, at least disappointing by Coen standards, the brothers returned to form with the ultra violent No Country For Old Men in 2007.
It was a staggering work, a classic that instantly stood beside other Coen works like Fargo and Blood Simple. Then in 2008, they took their talents 180 degrees with the ultra goofy Burn After Reading. It was a spy comedy with hapless blackmailers, despondent spooks, and Malkovich in one of his best roles. Burn After Reading didn’t get the critical nod that NCFOM received, but it actually performed better at the box office. It was a success by any means.
Side Note: This is the real joy of watching a new Coen brother film. After 14 feature films, you really never know what to expect. The brothers have made a career of genre bending and spanning films, each unique from the ones that proceeded it. Blood Simple, their debut, was a stark and bloody (duh) tale of revenge and murder. They followed that up with Raising Arizona, a comedy of domestic insanity. They’ve been doing approximately the same ever since.
Big Lebowski followed Fargo. The Man Who Wasn’t There followed O Brother, Where Art Thou? and so on and so on. Make sense? While each film in their cannon has been similar enough to be recognized as a Coen picture, no two films have really been the same. Ever.
So it is with A Serious Man, 180 degrees. The film opens on a strange prologue that takes place a hundred years ago? Two Hundred? I’m terrible at history. A yiddish couple, from the old country as it were, encounter a ghostly visitor, or is he?
After that scene, we are introduced to Larry Gopnik, a Jewish man living in 1960’s midwest America. Very likely a descendent of the prologue’s characters, Larry’s life is seemingly cursed, unraveling before his eyes, escaping his grasp of control. If he indeed has any to begin with.
The film also focuses a good deal on Larry’s son, Danny, who is preparing for his Bar mitzvah. The son is a dope smoking slack off, very much the opposite of Larry’s straight laced, uptight mannerisms. These two go through their own series of complications and tribulations, though it’s fair to say we care much more about Larry.
Basically, without giving away too much, Larry’s life goes from bad to worse, to even worse as the events unfold. Most of it is all of that everyday stuff that people encounter regularly. A pending divorce, aggressive debt collectors, problems professionally, a brother who has been crashing indefinitely on the couch.
Separately, these events may be approachable, but together they form a constant state of stress and dread for Larry and the audience. For half the picture you are expecting violence, a snap or spark that sets it off. Rather, this film takes a calculated, rhythmic and realistic approach. But still, that dread, that threat is there. Right there.
The best parts of the film are in the Coen’s perfectionist cinematography, brilliantly believable characters, and the superb acting all around. In fact, the actors may be my personal favorite element in the picture. Virtually all of the cast is unknown. The most famous guy in here is Richard Kind, who I only know because I used to watch Spin City for some reason. He’s good, but the standouts are Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry in an incredibly chameleonic performance, and Fred Melamed as Sy Abelman, the overly sympathetic leech stealing Larry’s wife. But, really everyone is great in this film.
Side Note: One of the trends lately that has really bothered me is the movie star roll call. Did you know George Clooney stars in three movies in just these two months? That Matt Damon is an action star at all? Why do only the biggest names get roles now? I love unknown or underused character actors. They lend credibility to the roles they inhabit. One of the worst parts of Burn After Reading, no THE worst part, was Brad Pitt. He reeked in that film.
You take an unknown or someone underused in films, and that character becomes a classic, the wacky clueless hyper gym instructor. But watching Brad Pitt on screen is so distracting, like Clooney or Damon or any of those caliber guys. I just sit there in my head going, “that’s A-list celebrity Brad Pitt on screen pretending to be a character in this film. And he is sucking right now.” (I don’t like Brad Pitt so much) The reason Larry is totally believable may be that I’m not distracted thinking about the last tabloid I read about so and so actor on screen. I am easily distracted.
Back to this movie, it is safe to assume the Coens are playing this one pretty close to the chest. This could seemingly resemble their own upbringing, being Jewish, growing up in that time period, in that kind of midwest neighborhood. It could almost be autobiographical. Things here never get too wacky or far-fetched. Nothing ever takes you out of the movie, though some of Larry’s dream sequences get a little bizarre. Everything carries a certain weight, some of it extremely heavy.
Some have criticized the Coens for being “self loathing Jews” for a perceived critical stance towards the majority of Jewish characters in this movie. But I have to disagree. The fact that the characters in this film range from irritating to buffoonish is no slight on a religion. It’s a slight on EVERYONE.
This film explores themes relevant to all people. It’s a story about a man and the crushing factors that keep him, keep anyone, down. Larry still tries to hold his head up, still tries to comfort others even when comfort is not offered to him. He is stronger than he is given credit for, he is resilient in a way that I surely could not be. The most telling part in the film is the lack of credit he is given for doing what he can. And just remember, things can always get worse. (The final seconds of this movie are some of the most powerful moments I’ve experienced in any theater)
Anywho. If you are at all a fan of the Coen brothers, I urge you to see this film. If you enjoy the black comedy side of the Coen’s this is especially a perfect picture for you. If you hate movies, I guess skip it, as you’d probably hate it.
And yes, I realize I just ended up rambling anyways, gotta get an editor or something.