Universal // 2009 // 106 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // February 9th, 2010
Larry Gopnick: "What happened to the Goy?"
Rabbi Nachtner: "The Goy? Who Cares?"
For all the strange and wonderful films Joel and Ethan Coen (Miller's Crossing) have made over the years, their Jewish heritage has been almost entirely left out. Certainly, they've featured Jewish characters, both in featured roles (the title character of Barton Fink) and as supporting players (John Goodman's convert in The Big Lebowski); but a Jewish identity has never before been central to their work. In A Serious Man, the brothers take us to a tight-knit Jewish community in suburban Minnesota. Small town Minnesota Jews themselves, this is a world they're intimately familiar with, and they've never seemed more comfortable than in this film.
Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg, Body of Lies) tries his best to be a good family man, teacher, and Jew. No matter what he does to get ahead though, something always smacks him back down. With his son's bar mitzvah only two weeks away, Larry finds out he's facing a financial crisis and his wife wants a divorce. Is Hashem punishing him? For answers, he seeks the advice of his trusted rabbis, but they only lead him to more questions.
The Coen Brothers don't give us much of a plot to work with in A Serious Man, which takes place over two weeks during 1967. Rather, the film is a series of incidental situations that form a kind of story that is moved along by character and coincidence instead of detailed plotting or dialog.
Instead of jumping right into the main story, the Coens start us off with a Jewish fable of their own devising. It involves a Jewish man who has invited a rabbi (stage legend Fyvush Finkle, of all people) over to dinner. His wife reveals that the rabbi died weeks ago and this invitee must be a dybbuk, or a possessed version of the rabbi. Just as she convinces him of the danger, the rabbi shows up. About twelve minutes long and in a 4:3 aspect ratio; the piece has the feel of an old short that would, in the past, accompany the feature. This has limited relevance to the greater film, but it draws us in quickly and serves the important purpose of setting the tone. The dark comedy should come as no surprise to fans of the Coen Brothers, but it really colors the first few moments of the actual story. As the image spreads into widescreen, the strains of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" are far more sinister than they've ever been.
This feeling permeates the entire film, even and especially during the funnier scenes. Cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Carter Burwell, in decades-long collaborations with the Coens, work in conjunction to create this feeling of dread. Their accents give the sense that there's some sort of Hitchcockian mystery to unravel, that an answer will present itself once the tension breaks. The music and photography become as much a character in the story as the actors, as they color everything, no matter how goofy or bleak the particular scene may be.
It certainly does get both very goofy and very bleak, but this film isn't about those extremes. It's more about how the characters interact; their relationships tell more of the story than the plot does. Larry's failing marriage to Judith (Sari Lennick), and his reaction to the news so soon into the film, give a great sense of how he deals with conflict in general. He tries to be both nice and firm; he means well, but he's impotent in the face of adversity. His reaction of bringing a bottle of wine to the man his wife is leaving him for, aptly-named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed, Hollywood Ending), shows this perfectly. Ordinarily, Larry's anger and confusion would clash with Sy's cavalier attitude, and a huge fight would ensue. Instead, all Larry can do is express his ignorance about wine. The relationship between the Gopnick children, Danny (Aaron Wolff) and Sarah (Jessica McManus), is hilariously combative and pitch-perfect. How Danny interacts with his school friends, cursing and getting high at school, compared to the good boy he displays at home is exactly right; and his friends are the picture of posers acting cool.
Across the board, the performances are great, especially since many of the characters are played by such inexperienced actors. That doesn't stop any of them from fully inhabiting their roles. The veterans, including Melamed, George Wyner (American Pie 2), and Michael Lerner (Eight Men Out) are all brilliant, making the most of their minimal screen time. They deliver the quirky charm that give "that Coen Brothers feel," as Lerner's James Lipnick from Barton Fink might have said. On that level, A Serious Man has more the feeling of their early films than their post-millennial work. Like those early films, the plot does not come full circle; it charges straight ahead. Characters come in and out of the story, motivations are few and far between, and game-changing events come out of nowhere. The film is delirious one minute and grim the next, but these moments are always consistently delivered and never feel out of place with one another. This all falls in line with the setting, and their late-'60s suburban Minnesota is one of the best they've put together. Though it's 1967, the styles associated with the time haven't made it that far inland yet; everybody is behind the times. Outside of a little pot and a little Jefferson Airplane, this seems much closer to 1960 than to 1967, but such is the late-to-the-party world of the Midwest.
The DVD for A Serious Man from Universal is acceptable, but certainly could have been better. The image, while generally clear, carries an overall softness to it that I don't think is intentional. The varied, but slightly muted color palette looks good, and the black levels are nice and deep, but the whole thing could have been much sharper. The surround sound mix is much better; with a full spectrum of spatial effects, very clear dialog, and a nice low end. The extras really should have been improved, however. With a mere two featurettes and a tiny Hebrew/Yiddish lexicon, this is a pretty sorry collection for such a good film. The first piece is called "Becoming Serious," and runs about twenty minutes. It discusses the creative direction of the film, its roots in the upbringing of the Coen Brothers, and the general themes they're going for. The second, "Creating 1967," runs about ten minutes and takes us on a tour of the locations in the film, discussing what they had to do to make the area seem authentic. Together, they're a decent picture of the production, but it's far from enough. The dictionary is too brief and pointless to be worth very much or teach anybody anything they can't figure out from context.
As a goy, there are parts of this film that I simply have no capacity to understand. It goes much farther than the Yiddish, too. The Coens throw all kind of Jewish mysticism and ritual into the mix. The arcanum is incredibly obscure, and they rightfully felt no need to explain the meaning of these details. I was lucky enough to have watched the film with a friend who went to Jewish school and had his bar mitzvah in Jerusalem, the whole bit. He helped by explaining some of the concepts, but a lot still flew over my head. I found, however, that the less I got, the more mysterious the film became. That knowledge isn't at all necessary to enjoy the film, but it's a very different experience without it.
Joel and Ethan Coen are masters at setting a scene, and A Serious Man may be their very best in that regard. Dizzying as it sometimes feels, the brothers are completely grounded here. They deliver a wholly believable world where the characters fit perfectly. Nothing feels out of place, the production is at its usual outstanding level, and the performances are funny and smart. This is the best film the Coen Brothers have made in years.
Klal shuldik nisht. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* DVD Verdict Interview with Michael Stuhlbarg