DVD Review: A Serious Man
A Serious Man is the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, and it’s an oddball comedy in the vein of Burn After Reading (read my review here) and The Big Lebowski, rather than a dark thriller like No Country for Old Men. Set in 1967 Minneapolis, it follows Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish physics professor on the verge of getting tenure, as his life begins to fall apart. His wife is leaving him for one of his friends, his children don’t respect him, his down-on-his-luck older brother is overstaying his welcome on his couch, one of his students is trying to bribe him for a better grade, and the university is receiving anonymous letters besmirching his character. The comedy in A Serious Man comes from watching the Coens pile more and more indignities on Larry and seeing just how far he can bend before he finally breaks. The title is a reference to Larry’s ultimate goal: to be taken seriously.
A Serious Man is steeped in Jewishness in a way that sort of works to its detriment, at least in my opinion. There’s lots of funny stuff in here, but I could never escape the feeling that I was an outsider looking in; some of the cultural references seem so inside-y, and the Coens are so uninterested in explaining them (which actually makes it funnier), that as much as I can appreciate the absurd humor in, say, the scenes where Larry speaks to rabbis (there’s a running gag about them being hard get in to see; I guess rabbis are difficult to get appointments with?), I couldn’t shake the feeling that there were jokes flying around that were sailing over my head. It’s not necessarily a bad thing – I still laughed a lot during A Serious Man, and the Coens’ flair for capturing life’s little absurdities remains as strong as ever – but it felt like there was an invisible barrier around the film preventing me from fully embracing it. It made me feel like a tourist.
That’s not to say that A Serious Man isn’t funny, because it is. It’s very funny. There’s lots of great stuff in here, from the pot-smoking, foul-mouthed kids at Larry’s son’s school to Larry’s bizarre encounter with his female neighbor to the aforementioned rabbi scenes, and, as usual, the Coens never go for the obvious joke, letting the comedy come from the tone and the performances rather than traditional “gags.”
Michael Stuhlbarg in the lead is really excellent, especially for an actor I’d never previously heard of. He’s funny and relatable, and manages to make Larry a pushover without rendering him unlikeable. As much as Larry lets people in the movie walk all over him, I never stopped rooting for him, and much of that is due to Stuhlbarg’s performance.
As much as A Serious Man is a comedy, the Coens bring their flair for tension to the film in strange ways. They pile things onto Larry as the film builds, creating a weird sort of suspense as the viewer waits to see if Larry will finally (and deservedly) blow his top. There’s at least a half-dozen scenes in the movie where I, in Larry’s place, would have started flipping over tables and punching people in the face. By setting the film in 1960s Minnesota, and making just about all the characters practicing Jews, the Coens play with ideas of repression and tradition and social codes (something they always seem to have fun with) even more than usual.
There’s a streak of misanthropy in the Coens’ movies, especially their later ones (it’s one of the reasons I enjoy their films so much), and it’s one of the things I liked the most about A Serious Man. As much as some of the content of the film felt like it was flying over my head or was weird for just the sake of being weird, there’s also a sense that they think this stuff is funny, and don’t really care if the viewer agrees, and I love that. There’s no better example of this than the film’s ending, which I won’t spoil other than to say it’s basically the point at which most “normal” movies would start, and it’s also one of the most arresting final images I’ve seen in a film since Park Chan-wook’s similarly consciously weird vampire movie, Thirst (read my review here). A Serious Man is a weird little comedy that, as much as it made me feel like an outsider at times, is still an enjoyable entry in the filmography of some of the most ridiculously talented and prolific filmmakers of their era.
As usual with the Coens, there isn’t exactly a wealth of extras on the DVD for A Serious Man. There’s a pair of featurettes on the making of the movie, both of which are pretty standard affairs (one, called ‘Becoming Serious,’ is a standard making-of EPK piece, and the other, ‘Creating 1967,’ focuses on recreating period details in the film), and both are constructed around the same interview with the Coens, and also feature interviews with the cast and other crew. Neither featurette is mind-blowing or particularly insightful, but the Coens are interesting guys, so any glimpse into their process, for a movie geek like me, is sort of cool.
There’s also ‘Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys,’ a funny little item that translates the Yiddish and Hebrew terms thrown around in the film by the characters. It’s quite cleverly edited, and despite its lack of substance, it’s more in keeping with the vibe of the film than the somewhat bland other extras.
Labels: Coen Brothers, comedy, DVD review