Universal // 2009 // 106 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 8th, 2010
Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.
"It's not always easy, deciphering what God is trying to tell you."
The year is 1967. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, Body of Lies) is a Midwestern physics professor whose life is slowly and steadily starting to spin out of control. His wife (Sari Lennick) is leaving to be with Larry's friend Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed, Hannah and Her Sisters), his brother (Richard Kind, Spin City) won't move out of the house, a student (David Kang) is attempting to bribe Larry to change some test results and his chances of receiving tenure are being threatened due to some unsavory letters that are being sent to his superiors. Why are all of these things happening to Larry?
The Coen Brothers have been making excellent films for quite a while now, and I've been one of their faithful followers for quite a while, too. Joel and Ethan are two of my favorite living filmmakers; they've now made several films that I regard as truly great. A Serious Man is perhaps the smallest movie they've ever made, a low-budget flick starring mostly no-name actors (many of whom have never appeared in any other film). It's also one of the best movies they've made, a multi-layered masterpiece that stands head and shoulders above any other film made in 2009.
Why do good things happen to bad people? Why do bad things happen to good people? If there is a God, is God truly responsible for absolutely everything that happens to us? Or is he just responsible for some of the more important things? Or is he responsible for anything at all? Are we meant to find meaning in many of the things that happen to us in life, or should we just accept things as they are and move on? Is there some sort of spiritual reaction to each of our actions? And if God exists, is it ever possible to truly know and understand what he's up to? When we go through times of turmoil, is God punishing us, or trying to help us learn something...or is it all just some sort of joke?
These are some of the questions that eat away at Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man. As has been pointed out in other reviews, Larry is essentially a modern-day Job, a man plagued by an ever-increasing series of woes that he can't understand. He wants to know why these things are happening to him; whether he's being punished for something he has done wrong or whether God is simply testing him or whether God has nothing to do with it at all. There is a moment when Larry is up on his roof fixing the television antennae. While he's up there, he notices something unusual: his next-door neighbor Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker, Dan in Real Life) is sunbathing nude in her back yard. Larry is understandably intrigued, and pauses for a moment to observe. Later, we discover that Larry is suffering from sunburn. Would he have gotten sunburn anyway, or did it happen because he took a couple of extra moments to lust after his neighbor's wife?
Larry yearns to find answers to these questions, and proceeds to visit a series of rabbis throughout the film. One of them tells Larry the fascinating story of, "The Goy's Teeth," which has all sorts of interesting details but absolutely no satisfying explanation or resolution to its central mystery. Larry demands to know what the meaning of it all is. "He hasn't told me," the rabbi replies with a smile. "These questions that are bothering you Larry -- maybe they're like a toothache. We feel them for a while and then they go away." The priest intends these words as a comfort, though to Larry they only add more pain. There is perhaps no answer to any question in all of religion more exasperating than, "The Lord works in mysterious ways." Larry is a master of science and mathematics; a man who is used to having specific answers to specific questions. Imagine how frustrated he must be when someone instructs him to, "accept the mystery."
Though the film draws heavily on Jewish/biblical/religious imagery and themes, the film can also be viewed from a scientific perspective. There are two scenes in the film in which we see Larry in front of an absurdly massive blackboard, teaching a large group of students. In one scene, he is attempting to explain Schroedinger's Cat. In another, he is attempting to explain Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. I have a friend who completely dismisses the idea that the film is actually about God or religion or questions of faith, but rather just an illustration of these principles filtered through the superstitious beliefs of various individuals. I tend to disagree, but it's a testament to the genius of the Coens that it functions so precisely on that secondary level (or is that the first level?).
I realize that my fascination with the film's themes has taken up much of this review, so let's focus for a moment on other qualities of the film. It should be noted that despite its heavy subject matter and genuinely dark scenes, A Serious Man is a comedy, and a very funny one at that. The Coens' distinct sense of humor can be found in full force in A Serious Man. Truth be told, I think it's their funniest movie since The Big Lebowski, though that film doesn't leave me with a knot in my stomach at the conclusion (speaking of which, if you were one of those people who hated the ending of No Country for Old Men, you're probably not going to be a fan of this conclusion, either). I'm particularly tickled by the painfully funny scenes featuring Fred Melamed as Sy Abelman, a man who is quietly destroying Larry's life and gently attempting to counsel him through the process. "Sometimes I like to count to ten," he says empathetically. Even if the deeper questions being asked by the film are of little interest to you, there are certainly more than enough laughs to justify the viewing experience.
I've heard a number of people suggest that the film is less precise than usual for the Coens; its "ramshackle" nature indicative of what a personal story this is for them (it draws deeply on their own childhoods in many ways). Such a suggestion is nonsense, as this happens to be one of the most precise movies they've made. There isn't a single shot or line of dialogue that doesn't belong in the film; absolutely everything is there for a reason and it's all captured beautifully by Roger Deakins' stunning cinematography (there are an absurd number of sublime shots to be found in this film). It may be a more intimate and personal story than usual, but this is still very much a Coen Brothers film in just about every way.
Performances are strong throughout, anchored by Stuhlbarg's sincere and convincing open-faced bewilderment. It's far and away the most substantial and important role the actor has ever been given, but he nails it (earning a well-deserved Golden Globe nomination in the process). Here's hoping we'll see more of him in the future. Most other actors don't get more than a handful of scenes, but the Coens do a terrific job of casting memorable faces that make a big impression in a short amount of time. It's worth noting that despite the relative inexperience of much of the cast, there doesn't appear to be any real weak link in terms of acting.
As I mentioned, the film is genuinely gorgeous from a visual perspective, so it's a good thing that the hi-def transfer is exceptionally strong. Detail is sharp throughout, both in terms of facial detail and background. Blacks are infinitely deep and shading is superb; though the surprising opening sequence (shot in full frame, oddly enough) is just a tiny bit too murky at times (though only in contrast to the rest of the film, which looks amazing). It's particularly important that the transfer is strong given some of the very subtle visual touches the Coens incorporate into the film, so I'm glad Universal stepped up to the plate on this one. Audio is also quite good, though this is a mostly quiet, conversational track. Carter Burwell's gentle score comes through with clarity and warmth, while the Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix tunes blast through with vigor and energy. A couple of noisier scenes really manage to impress; otherwise the track is content to do its job without drawing too much attention to itself.
The supplements are a bit disappointing, as is generally the case with Coen Bros. releases. "Becoming Serious" (17 minutes) is a nice little piece in which the Coens and others gently try to explain what their film is about without actually spelling anything out, "Creating 1967" (14 minutes) focuses on production design and "Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys" (2 minutes) helpfully explains what some of the terms used in the film mean, from "get" to "mazeltov" to "Hashem." The disc is also equipped with BD-Live and "My Scenes." None of this stuff is bad, but as usual, the viewer is left yearning for something of more substance. Alas, the Coens seem to be the sort of filmmakers who prefer to let their films speak for themselves without adding two-hour documentaries or audio commentaries into the mix.
Though A Serious Man received largely positive reviews, a handful of critics have demonstrated some real contempt for the film, suggesting that it's a mean-spirited, smug movie with some racist tendencies (a critic with the Village Voice went so far as to refer to the film as "Nazi Porn"). I find such notions preposterous; the film is littered with the usual array of appealingly Coenesque characters and caricatures, and the brothers seem to regard them in a loving manner (they're certainly treated with far more affection than the bumbling fools of Burn After Reading). Then again, such critics are largely in the same "P.C. to the point of illogical absurdity" group that found Up in the Air and An Education to be among the worst films of 2009 (and if you're in that group, Hashem help you).
From its mysterious prologue to that sucker-punch of a closing shot, A Serious Man is a deeply captivating and rewarding experience that deserves to be a part of any collection. The Blu-ray release looks stunning and sounds good. Buy it, watch it, absorb it, watch it again and appreciate it for the perfect film that it is.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* My Scenes
* DVD Verdict Interview with Michael Stuhlbarg