So, this guy goes to see three rabbis….
No, that’s not the start of some insensitive anti-Semitic joke. It’s the rather offbeat idea behind the latest film by the Coen brothers. Of course, off the wall is business as usual for Ethan and Joel Coen. Fans of the brothers’ work already know to expect the unexpected. You’re likely not looking for the same kind of logical coherence that you might otherwise demand in your movies. The films often share a modern allegory to some classic fable or tale. There is certainly an element of a parable to this film in particular. It is not at all unlike the biblical tale of Job. Don’t look for higher meaning in this tale of a man in search of a higher meaning. Instead, be prepared to become a fly on the wall in a life that is far from ordinary, yet anything but extraordinary.
Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg) is a middle-aged Jew living in an upper middle class world in Minnesota in the 1960’s. He is a physics professor with the usual worries of getting tenure and the not so usual problems that only the Coen Brothers would throw at the poor guy. A student attempts to bribe him for a better grade. His son cares only about how good the television signal is for F Troop and smoking pot at Hebrew school. His daughter is self-absorbed as many teens are. His wife has announced that she wants a get (Jewish divorce/annulment) so that she can be with his friend Sy Abelman (Melamed). His best friend spends his entire life on Larry’s couch with a suction device draining a cyst on his neck. These are just some of the problems Larry faces. None of these events take place with the usual hostility one might expect. His wife’s lover Sy constantly embraces him, offering him words of admiration all the while pushing him out of his own home and into a sleazy hotel with Arthur (Kind), his cyst-infested best friend. He’s a man very accustomed to ordering the world into logical equations and proofs, but finds he must be missing the meaning of it all. In his attempt to be a “serious man” Larry seeks the help of three rabbis. The first two offer him words of wisdom that just don’t make any sense and the most renowned and elder of his temple’s rabbis refuses to see him, instead willing to talk Jefferson Airplane with his son.
The movie is not the kind of straightforward comedy or drama that most filmmakers would offer here. Instead of a traditional story, the film plays out in a series of encounters for Larry. His life is populated with the most eccentric of characters. Not the least is his wife’s lover Sy, played by Fred Melamed, who steals the show in every scene he’s in. All that lead Michael Stuhlbarg really needs to do here is play the straight man to everyone around him. His life is the butt of everyone else’s jokes. The performance appears effortless, as if all he is required to do is react, but that’s such an oversimplification of what’s truly going on here. His reactions are stunted, almost stoic, as his entire world pretty much goes to crap. It’s an ingenious combination of ridiculous events and subdued interaction that makes this film so compelling to watch. Larry’s life is a train wreck, and we can’t help but watch the carnage, taking not even secret delight in the results. We’re not pulling for things to get better for Larry because, quite honestly, we’re being far too entertained by his tragedy. Never has such bad luck been so much fun.
A Serious Man is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at an average 30 mbps. This isn’t going to be one of those WOW type of transfers, but it is quite solid. As period pieces go, this one does a great job of building the atmosphere with a very convincing color palette rich in earth tones and subtle hues. The lighting is a bit odd at times, but having never lived in, or even visited, that part of the country, I’m willing to accept the native Coen Brothers representation of the sunlight atmosphere. The detail is about as sharp as it can be. Black levels, on the other hand, are solid.
The DTS-HD Master 5.1 audio is also not there to impress you so much as to immerse you into Larry’s world. Dialog is fine. The Coens deliver a ton of ambient sounds and effects which bring you into this realistic, if just slightly off-kilter world.
Becoming Serious: (17:04) There is an opening story that it is admitted here has absolutely nothing to do with the movie. They call it their Yiddish version of a cartoon at the beginning of the movie. It’s actually quite entertaining, however. Otherwise this is a pretty standard making-of feature with cast and crew giving us their thoughts. If you’ve seen enough Coen Brothers releases, you know they don’t ever appear very comfortable talking.
Creating 1967: (13:43) Cast and crew talk about recreating the period for the film. The cars and tornado f/x are also covered here.
Hebrew And Yiddish For Goys: (2:14) Check out scenes in the film with a glossary of the Yiddish terms that populate the movie.
BDLive/ My Scenes (Bookmarks)
A Serious Man first came to my attention in a rather unusual way. I’m a Minnesota Vikings football fan who lives in Tampa, Florida. I end up spending a lot of time downloading and listening to podcasts of KFAN radio in Minny where I’ve become quite familiar with the talk hosts. Mark Rosen had auditioned for, I believe, the Adam Arkin role, and was talking about the film. That was my first exposure to the release. Rosen didn’t get the gig, the Vikes lost in the playoffs, but I ended up getting the film. I recommend you give this one a try. You will be entertained. You might not understand it. “Please. Accept the mystery.”