A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, some Sexuality/Nudity and brief Violence

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Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolff, Ari Hoptman, Adam Arkin, Simon Helberg & George Wyner

The Coen brothers have cemented themselves as two of the best filmmakers working today. While most people are able to cite FARGO, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and THE BIG LEBOWSKI as some of their famous work, there still seem to be a handful of flicks that get swept under the rug. A SERIOUS MAN is one of these movies that never really gets mentioned when discussing the Coens. It’s easy to see why that is when you take in what a strange tragicomedy this is, but SERIOUS MAN can easily be appreciated with the rest of the siblings’ filmography. Though it probably helps if you’re Jewish, you’ll possibly dig this movie if you enjoy pretty much everything that the Coens pump out to a certain degree. Though I still have to get through a couple of entries in their catalogue, the Coens haven’t made a bad film that I’ve seen. A SERIOUS MAN is a seriously enjoyable time that can also be dissected on deeper levels (there have been interesting essays penned specifically about this movie).

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Larry Gopnik is down on his luck. In a single day, his hopes for tenure have been placed on shaky ground, a student has threatened him, financial troubles are ensuing and his wife has asked for a divorce. Larry’s life doesn’t look like it could possibly get much worse, but that’s exactly what it continues to do. This middle-class Jewish man’s sad existence keeps going further and further downhill. The real question is to whether Larry will give up all hope and do what seems easy or will stick firm to his beliefs and keep enduring this rough patch to do what is right. Either way, consequences are definitely in store for either choice…

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Though it’s been labeled as a dark comedy, A SERIOUS MAN isn’t quite the conventional funny that some might be expecting. It’s actually nowhere close to the Coens’ usual brand of oddball humor. Instead, this is an outright tragedy with some definite laughs. There are running jokes throughout (most of which really worked for me), but you’ll find yourself wondering whether you should be laughing during a certain scene or crying. A number of scenes could garner both as an appropriate response. I felt bad for Larry. I honestly, truly did. At the same time, the over-the-top bad circumstances he finds himself in did get laughs from me. I couldn’t point to any recognizable faces among the cast of characters and that further sold this film as taking place in a suburbia that could be located in the middle of anywhere (though it’s set in Minnesota). Michael Stuhlbarg carries this film on his shoulders as Larry. There’s hardly a moment when the camera isn’t following this stressed out character.

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On the technical side of things, A SERIOUS MAN looks great. Small details and masterful framing make this film look like was somehow filmed in 1967 with HD cameras. It looks gorgeous, even though there’s hardly a special effect to speak of. As funny, sad, and all out strange as this film is, it’s not without a couple of problems that could ruin it for some folks. The prologue comes out of nowhere and has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It was filmed well and was interesting, but there’s no earthly reason why it should have been included as it doesn’t tie into anything else in this film. There are also a couple of spots where things seem to be going in circles. I was entertained and enjoying the story, so it didn’t fully bother me. However, I could easily see more than a few people getting angry about this movie and calling it a pointless bore.

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A SERIOUS MAN is one of the more underrated efforts to come out of the Coen brothers’ filmography. It’s definitely not for everyone and stands as one of the more subversive films that this pair of sibling directors have taken on. There’s a definite sense that those who have grown up in the Jewish culture might have a greater appreciation for this story, but I enjoyed it purely as another weird piece of filmmaking from two of my favorite directors working today. It also left me with a bit to chew on as the haunting conclusion is a tad more serious than you might expect given how absurd everything else has been up to that point. If this movie sounds at all interesting to you, then by all means, give it look!

Grade: A-

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