A Serious Man could have been called A Private Man. Because that’s what this film is – private. It’s the sort of movie that only gets made by a powerful entity, in this case, the Coen brothers. Hot off the Oscar and commercial success of No Country for Old Men, they followed up with the irreverent and profitable thriller Burn After Reading (which they call “our Tony Scott film” during the making-of featurette), and then the Coens went slightly Barton Fink on their fans with A Serious Man, which is an utterly hysterical 60’s-set black comedy, which for me, is probably the best movie to deal with the Jewish-American experience, with the possible exception of Barry Levinson’s touching family drama Avalon. At least that I’ve seen. I love all of the period and religious detail, every single cast member is the exact and only person for their role, and the Coen’s diseased, obscenely witty sense of humor is in evidence during every scene, while their perfect and precise formal composition is immaculate to behold. This film is in the brother’s top five for sure.
A Serious Man is about that – a serious man – a college professor named Larry Gopnik (the fantastic Michael Stuhlbargh) who has a lot of personal issues to deal with. His wife is leaving him for Sy Abelman (the brilliant Fred Melamed as “the sex guy” in an epic and dryly hilarious performance), a patronizing fellow who feels that a “fine Bordeaux” is a suitable gift for the man whose wife he’s stealing. His stoner son is getting ready for his Bar Mitzvah and he’s not taking any of it seriously, favoring getting ripped with his friends over practicing his Hebrew. Then there’s the issue of his sloppy brother (Richard Kind, fabulous) who happens to have a grotesque neck ailment and who is living on his couch. Oh, and let’s not forget the pot-smoking and frequently nude-while-sunbathing next door neighbor who might just have a thing for Larry. And possibly most importantly, he’s up for tenure at his college but a conniving student might be up to something to prevent that from happening. This movie is bitingly funny, never in a cheap fashion, mixing laugh-out-loud guffaws with sly, uncomfortable, LQTM-humor. The less spoiled about the story specifics the better, as each character is given plenty of material to create a lasting impression, while the uniquely dark sense of morality and fate leaves you questioning what will happen by the end.
Just like every Coen brother film, this one has gotten better and better upon repeated viewings, and I firmly believe it’s in their top five films of all time. It’s very specific, just like all Coen efforts, and for some people, it’s going to be emotionally inaccessible. The film marked yet another striking collaboration between the Coens and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins; they seem unbelievably in synch as a creative unit. A Serious Man asks questions of faith, of moral compass, and of familial obligation, and it’s all done with a misanthropic sense of deranged glee, so sometimes it’s tough to exactly know what the Coens might be trying to say. That’s a quality, in my estimation, of great storytelling. Great art needs to be considered, it needs to be re-examined, and discussed. And it never needs to hold your hand. Which leads me to the final image of the film – if there was ever a whammy in the making, it’s the one that closes this offbeat piece of work. There’s a particular, blackly-comic world-view that the Coens subscribe too, and I know that it rubs some people the wrong way. But for fans of this brazenly unique filmmaking duo, A Serious Man will really do the trick.
I just adore the creative chances the Coens took with aspects of this bizarre and brilliant film. I love how the cryptic opening sequence, filmed in Yiddish, is one of the most surreal things to start any movie. The Coens dare you to make sense of what you’re watching. Shot in Academy ratio 1.33:1 with a purposefully degraded image, A Serious Man opens with a Jewish folk-story that on first glance has nothing to do with the events in the narrative of the film. But after the movie is over, think back to the beginning, and maybe watch this dreamy passage again – it’s as beguiling as it is informative and despite what the Coens have said in interviews (that it’s meaningless), I don’t think that’s truly the case. And then you have the sure-to-be-divisive ending and final shot, which without spoiling anything, has to be seen as a metaphor for all that has come before it, and all that will occur after the final frame has disappeared into the Fade to Black.
Everything they have ever done has been all of a piece, a total vision from start to finish, a work that never feels compromised in any way. Over the last 20+ years, they’ve created a particular type of cinema, and they’ve developed a narrative and visual short-hand, not only with their frequent on and off screen counterparts, but with audiences, and most importantly, with viewers who enjoy re-watching their work over and over and over again. That’s the best part of a Coen film: re-watchability. Can you look yourself in the mirror and honestly say that once is enough for the likes of No Country for Old Men, Barton Fink, Fargo, Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, and The Big Lebowski, just to name a few? No way. A Serious Man should easily be considered one of their absolute finest accomplishments.
Review by Nick Clement