REVIEW: A Serious Man

105 Minutes // USA // Mike Zoss Productions
dir. Joel + Ethan Coen
Thursday, October 29th, 2009 – Cumberland Four
starring: Michael Stuhlberg, Aaron Wolff & Richard Kind

Recently, Ethan and Joel Coen have been on a critical tear. After spending some time reassessing their thriving careers and wanting to know which direction to take after 2004’s The Ladykillers, the duo apparently have decided to go the route that launched them into vocation with meditative themes, plentiful symbolic representations, and of course, dark humor.

A Serious Man is no different than the above would indicate. Being prolifically (and stupidly) interpreted as anti-religion, the latest from the Coen brothers is far from gentle and even further from antisemitism as flimsy critics would attest to.

Opening on a scene that should indicate the path the Coen’s are trying to set the film’s course to, you see behold a scene; a wonderful, potent scene that demonstrates the Jewish faith/folklore to a small degree, but a degree that does allow you to sufficiently grasp the purpose of the theme nonetheless. Comparable to Sergei Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in style, the opening scene illustrates how receiving help from the dead and the wicked will lead to your faith being tested and the routine of your life levitated to allow for more persecution until you choose the righteous path, as well as impressing how important explicit communication is. This sets the table for Larry’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) upcoming series of events and lets you know how his life will turn out depending on the choice he makes.

When it is found out that Larry’s wife Judith (Sari Lennick) has been having an affair with a man whose wife has been three years dead in Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed). Not only is this reiterated three times early on in the feature for the viewer to draw comparisons to the man who died three years prior in the first scene, but it also shows the Coen’s attention to symbolic detail in that three is regarded as the number for trial – a gesture that forebodes smoothly for those equip with this knowledge. Needless to say, Larry is livid over his wife’s affair – and though no background information is given into their relationship, you can understand that Larry’s obsession with achieving tenure does put his family life on hold and is just cause for a separation.

In correlation with the disjointed family plot, a smaller but indisputably significant story surrounding Larry’s son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is held. Not only does this allow for the Coen brothers to draw parallels between 60s teenagers and the ones of today, but it also gives insight to the strain that it is to be a misunderstood and emotionally malnourished boy on the verge of manhood (emphasized by his forthcoming Bar Mitzvah). In wanting to toss in a little bit more to chew, the Coen’s display the juxtaposing lives of neighbours. Larry’s racially intolerant neighbour seems to have a healthy life – he plays catch with his son often and bonds with him even further on occasion, whereas Larry and his son hardly spend more than a moment talking to one and other – implementing the “life isn’t fair” theme, if only briefly at that point in the film. A bucolic breakdown ensues.

One day a student of Larry’s in Clive (David Kang) nonchalantly bribes his teacher to give him a passing grade. In the midst of contemplating taking the money to wipe out some of his debts, he is put through a series of rigorous tests – presumably by God – as the opening scene would forebode.

With a domino effect set in place – Larry takes the money, he is doomed; Larry doesn’t take the money, he obtains salvation – the story chugs along with a cacophonous ambiance. Important references to the time – along with seemingly menial, but paramount scenes that hold metaphorical weight – pop up in the soundtrack that allows for a better perception for Larry’s wants in life. As plainly put as the song that finds itself blaring on occasion in the feature – “when the truth is found to be lies/and all the joy within you dies/wouldn’t you want somebody to love” – Larry’s agony holds extensive bounds, but could all be solved if his faith in Judaism is reignited and love makes its way back into his life.

Both of his issues in his family life and religious understanding would be resolved if communicating with them proved helpful. With his family, his wife and children bicker incessantly which allows for little input and even less accurate concluding from the protagonist. With religion, he receives advice from Rabbi’s that are entirely fraught and without comprehension. Point is, in addition to Larry’s spiraling existence he is also deprecated in the assimilation of plain matters – a matter that is heavily associated with Larry’s “big picture” and the issues that ensue.

Even while being exclusively devoted to its ruminating purpose, A Serious Man has the ability to appease to all viewers. There’s plentiful humor to be distributed to those not extensively emotionally invested. Upon supposition, the addition of Uncle Albert (Richard Kind) would appear to be an attempt to chock more humor into the final product, but even he has a profound outlook on life that keeps the feature ovoid in artistic intent. Never sophistry when coming to devout aspiration are these filmmakers.

Laced with superb performances – Stuhlberg releases an onerous performance that matches his exigent character mournfully, Melamed absolves the necessity of having a “so calm they’re annoying” character in cinema hereafter and Kind pops a short-lived, but fervidly enigmatic stint –  A Serious Man never seeks to exhaust its audience, and while a delight to watch unfold, holds as complex and depressing an underbelly as any film by the brothers to date. Brisk pacing that keeps the blood in the rhetorical film’s veins flowing endlessly and landscape shots of suburban complacency that have never been more induced with dulcet, but alarming tones additionally liven up the feature as well.

As Clive’s father says in the middle of the film, there is culture clash that keeps everyone’s interpretations from being absolute; again stressing the importance of communication to lead a refined existence. In essence, I believe that the Coen’s throw that out as a professional gesture to the non-Jewish community watching to allow for some easement as it is doubtful that they will be able to conjure an absolute conclusion to what they writers strove to achieve. And while most is palpable to those that consort with the pondering of human nature, it is certainly impossible to completely grasp A Serious Man without divulging into Judaism at least enough to get key references. A guileless effort – that while undoubtedly self-serving – that ranks amongst the best that the Oscar winners have made.

A cut above what the Coen brothers have produced this decade and one that’s value will certainly increase upon revisits. [9/10]

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: A Serious Man

  1. Haha says:

    You might want to edit that. The film takes place in the sixties, not the eighties. I found this to best Coen Bros. film of the decade. Excellent review. Such a fun film.

    • forizzer69 says:

      How correct you are… I read my theater’s brief summary of it a few weeks back and I guess I read “1980s” and that just stuck. Haha, oops.

      And yes, it definitely is their best of the decade. Best since ‘94, at least.

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