”Everything I thought was one way turns out to be another.”
I don’t proclaim myself to be a huge fan of the work of Joel and Ethan Coen, the writer/director/producer brothers who’ve made some of the most critically claimed films in the past 25 years. I’ve seen most of their films, and even loved a few of them. However, I’m often left scratching my head and wondering whether they’re smarter than me or just being clever. While I love Miller’s Crossing, Fargo and The Big Lebowski, I still scratch my head at Barton Fink, parts of No Country for Old Men, and most of Raising Arizona (although that is a very funny movie). Perhaps the Coen sensibility is simply lost on me.
Their latest work is the Academy Award-nominated A Serious Man, available now on DVD and Blu-ray. Using a cast of mostly unknowns, the Coens’ new story is about Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a college physics professor whose world is unraveling. His wife (Sari Wagner Lennick) is divorcing him for one of his colleagues; he’s at risk of not making tenure at the college; his kids don’t respect him; his neighbor is hostile; his unemployed brother (Richard Kind) has taken up residence with him; and he has had to move out of his house and into a roadside motel.
As Carter Burwell’s foreboding score implies, something terrible seems to be waiting around every corner for Larry, whether it’s his encounters with his rabbis, his lawyer, the representative from the Columbia Record Club seeking payment, or the Korean student who may or may not have left a hefty bribe on Larry’s desk. Life sucks for Larry. This film would be quite depressing if it weren’t for a breakthrough performance by Stuhlbarg.
A veteran of the New York theater scene and some minor film roles, Stuhlbarg seems born to play this part. At times tragic, and others downright hilarious, the actor emotes the pain and confusion Larry is going through so clearly that you can’t help but empathize with this sad sack, even though you may be laughing at him. The actor was given a hefty task with carrying this film, and he pulls it off with ease.
Behind the scenes, the Coens’ usually top-notch crew are on hand, including Roger Deakins, who once again does impeccable work behind the camera, perfectly capturing the mood and the colors of the late ’60s, and Mary Zophre’s seemingly effortless costume design.
Although there are two principal storylines throughout A Serious Man (the other following Larry’s son as he gets closer to his bar mitzvah), the film is more about observing behavior than seeing through any major plot point. Ultimately it’s about perceptions, raising many questions about God and what we should take from the signs He gives us. But the Coens never answer those questions — which, if you’re a fan, you should expect by now. The brothers have never been afraid to be ambiguous in their films, in particular their most personal work. Because of the Midwest setting, the time period and the heavy Jewish influence, A Serious Man feels like it may be one of their most personal films. Of course, the stoic Joel and Ethan Coen will never let you know that for sure. They let the movie speak for itself.
While A Serious Man left me confused at times, I did feel it was much more approachable than some of the other Coen works. Is it one of the best films of the year? In true Coen fashion, I’m not going to answer that. I’ll you decide on your own.
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