Serious Man, A (United States, 2009)

September 29, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Serious Man, A Poster

Masters of audacity, the Coen Brothers continue to amaze with their versatility and, unlike many who have achieved success, they have shown no inclination to slip into a comfortable groove. When one scans their joint resumes, it becomes apparent that, while Joel and Ethan have not always hit pay dirt, their efforts have always been at least interesting. Their latest, A Serious Man, represents another change in course for the brothers, and it will reside in the upper echelon of their titles, although a little below the top.

After working with star-studded casts (George Clooney, Tommy Lee Jones, Brad Pitt) for a string of consecutive features, the Coens have populated this outing with character actors. There's not an A-lister to be found in the credits; the best-known names are Adam Arkin and Richard Kind. The lead, Michael Stuhlbarg, has made his reputation on stage, and he has won a Tony. His TV and screen credits are few and far between, with single-episode appearances on shows like Law & Order making up a lion's share of them. He, like his fellow "no namers," is excellent, and the presence of so many low-key performers gives A Serious Man a very different, distinctly non-Hollywood vibe. The absence of familiar faces allows the Coens to fully immerse their audience in the time (1967) and place (the U.S. Midwest) of the story.

A Serious Man is like a modern-day re-enactment of the Book of Job with college physics professor Larry Gropnik (Stuhlbarg) struggling against the multiple forces arrayed against him. He's up for tenure, but someone is submitting negative anonymous letters urging the committee to deny him. His wife has decided to leave him for their friend, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed in a scene-stealing part). He sees a neighbor sunbathing nude but when he works up the courage to talk to her, nothing happens. His brother (Kind), who is developing a "probability map of the universe," is an albatross around his neck. And his son wants nothing more than that Larry re-align the aerial TV antenna so "F-Troop" comes in clearly.

As indignity and absurdity build upon one another in Larry's life, we get the sense that things are escalating to a boiling point. There's a lot of Jewish religious doctrine in the film, but not so much that the Gentile will feel lost. (Interestingly, those raised Catholic may find that there's not much of a gulf between "Catholic guilt" and "Jewish guilt," making a lot of what transpires in this film as accessible to Catholics as to Jews.) The Coens have a specific message they're trying to convey with the precisely scripted story, but that meaning isn't decipherable until the abrupt ending. (It's also not until that point that the inclusion of a seemingly unrelated 10-minute prologue becomes evident.) As is often the case with the Coens' work, there's as much going on beneath the surface as there is on top of it. A Serious Man is challenging cinema, but it's also rewarding. It's just as funny as last year's Burn After Reading, although some of the comedy is more intellectual. And, as is always the case, the story takes its share of sudden, unexpected turns - usually as a result of deaths. The Coens delight in surprising viewers with sharp turns in the script (consider Brad Pitt's fate in Burn After Reading) - something they do here on more than one occasion. Just when you think you're getting comfortable...

The ending, or lack thereof, will cause some viewers to throw up their hands in disgust. Like most movie-goers, I appreciate tidy endings, but there are times when such artificial closure works against what the director is attempting to convey, and this is one such instance. One of the film's assets is that so much is left unresolved, because in that lack of resolution can be found the Coens' meaning. It also allows each individual some latitude for interpretation. Optimists and pessimists will undoubtedly see things differently and one senses the Coens wouldn't want it any other way. The ending is not as maddening as that of John Sayles' Limbo, but it's in the running for second place.

Perhaps the most interesting element of A Serious Man is how multilayered the storyline is. Initially, it appears to be relatively straightforward, but the Coens throw in seemingly irrelevant details that have payoffs, even when the nature of the payoff is not immediately obvious. There are also some wonderful throw-away moments, like a blackboard "joke" associated with the uncertainty principle. There's a dream sequence that is not telegraphed as such. And a rabbi's deep words of philosophy are taken directly from Jefferson Airplane. While other filmmakers could get away with stuff like this, I'm not sure anyone else could put it all together in such an effective manner. A Serious Man's lack of brand name actors will limit its multiplex playtime, but the participation of the Coens should keep this quirky and original motion picture out of the obscurity into which many movies like this sadly tumble. It is not a masterpiece, but it's a fascinating piece of cinema - a characterization that one too rarely uses in describing anything reaching theaters in 2009.

Serious Man, A (United States, 2009)

Ranked #10 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2009
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2009-10-02
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1