Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Serious Man (2009)

The Serious Coens

- The day that the Coen Brothers deliver something expected is the day that the world ends. After all of the praise and success of their Oscar winning thriller No Country For Old Men (2007), the Coens continue to resist the calls to churn out another thriller by following up their quirky CIA comedy Burn After Reading (2008) with a religiously-toned and character-centered look at life's randomness: A Serious Man (2009).

Basically, the Coen Brothers get to play God in A Serious Man. That's right: invoking the structure and lessons found in the Book of Job and then some (pay particular attention to the opening scenes and consider them throughout the film), A Serious Man tells the story of the tragedy-ridden college professor Larry Gopnick who is in a desperate state searching for the meaning of his troubles and life as a whole. Within a late-1960s suburban Minnesota setting, Larry looks like he could lose it all with each new problem: his wife is having an affair with his colleague (forcing Larry to live at the dumpy Jolly Roger hotel), his kids ignore and disrespect him, one of his students is trying to bribe him, his tenure is up in the air, and this would become a run-on sentence if I listed all of the problems that Larry's brother has. Larry looks for answers to life's questions amidst his turmoil in a dramatic and surprisingly hilarious journey that only the Coens could craft up.

A Serious Man is an extremely interesting and engaging film that is both a departure for the Coen Brothers and a return to their roots. In many ways, A Serious Man is similar to previous Coen Brothers films No Country For Old Men and Burn After Reading in that it further explores the randomness of life. Larry's explanation of the Uncertainty Principle, mirroring his own personal situation, "we never really know what's going on" could be switched with the CIA Superior's question "what have we learned here" in Burn After Reading and could be answered by Ellis' "you can't stop what's coming" in No Country For Old Men. In other ways, A Serious Man is similar to Coen Brothers classics Barton Fink (1991) and The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) with its focus on one lead character's troubles and its heavy use of symbolism. Nothing in the film can be taken lightly and multiple viewings reveal deeper meanings in every scene. Frequent Coen collaborator Roger Deakins also returns to shoot the picture and continues to prove why he is the modern day maestro of light and color in the film industry with a masterful conduction of the film's cinematography.

In other ways still, A Serious Man could not be more different than the rest of the Coens' filmography. A Serious Man is arguably the film that is the most personal for the Coens, as many elements of the plot were borrowed from their lives growing up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. The mixture of humor and drama is quite perfect for the story the Coens want to tell, some scenes are as funny as Burn After Reading and others are as tense as No Country For Old Men, but the juggling of the two is handled differently than they have been in other Coen Brothers films.

Also, while no big Hollywood stars can be seen in A Serious Man, an actor's performance has overshadowed the script and film-making for the first time ever in a Coen Brothers film. As interesting the story is and as engaging the Coens' style is, Michael Stuhlbarg's Golden Globe-nominated performance of Larry Gopnick is the absolute highlight of the film. Stuhlbarg's relatable and twitchy yet laid-back portrayal of the soft-spoken, tired, and desperate Larry Gopnick is reason enough to watch A Serious Man and is, for my money, the film's greatest strength. Stuhlbarg headlines a great non-starlet cast: familiar faces Richard Kind and Adam Arkin give good showings, Fred Melamed is a particular supporting force, and young newcomer Aaron Wolff is especially good as Larry's selfish, pot-smoking, "F Troop" watching, soon-to-be-Bar Mitzvahed son Danny.

While no doubt enjoying a somewhat brain-free film now and then, I typically like my films to be both entertaining and substantive. The Coen Brothers always deliver both entertainment and substance in their films (even if the only substance can be found in their clever humor or visual style) and their 2009 effort, A Serious Man, is no exception. However, I would cite A Serious Man as the only film in the Coens arsenal in which the cerebral elements outweighs the entertainment. Usually the Coens master a great balance when it comes to thought and fun - even their thrillers, while surely dark, are "fun" on a cinematic enjoyment level - but A Serious Man is easily the most serious Coen entry. Is this factor a bad thing that hurts the film? No, I would not say that at all. I will say, however, that the viewer does have to pay extra close attention, look past what is merely being presented or said, recall prior scenes with a special effort, and really think hard about what the Coen Brothers are saying in the film. A Serious Man is a very interesting film with an incredible Michael Stuhlbarg performance either way - the Coen Brothers do it again and deliver another brilliant film.

CBC Rating: 8/10

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