Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Serious Man

Originally Written and Posted at on 11/22/09 w/ Additional Edits.

Written, produced, and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen, A Serious Man tells the story of a physics professor whose ideal life of bliss is shattered when his wife divorces him, his children treat him with disrespect, his brother living at his home, and his work as a teacher causes him to raise question about his life. The film is set in the summer of 1967 at a Jewish community in Minnesota where the Coen Brothers grew up as it examines a man's faith being tested as well as his belief on how he should live. Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fyvush Finkel, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed, Adam Arkin, George Wyner, Amy Landecker, and Coen Brothers associates Katherine Borowitz, Steve Park, and Michael Lerner. A Serious Man is a witty yet harrowing film from the Coen Brothers.

It's 1967 at a Jewish suburb in Minnesota where a physics professor named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) lives with his family that includes his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) and their two children in daughter Sarah (Jessica MacManus) and son Danny (Aaron Wolff), the latter of whom is about to have a Bar Mitzvah. Also living at the house to the annoyance of the family is Larry's troubled brother Arthur (Richard Kind) who has been making secret trips to the bathroom lately. Larry feels he's been doing what he's supposed to do in life but doesn't get appreciated by his kids while his marriage is losing steam. At a nearby college where Larry works at, a Korean student named Clive (David Kang) goes to his office over what he felt was an unfair grade where an envelope of money was left.

Larry's life begins to unravel as Clive's bribe starts to threaten a possible tenure that he's worked hard for. A friend named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) comes to Larry's home where it's revealed that Judith is leaving Larry for Sy and wants a ritual divorce so she can marry Sy in the traditional Jewish faith. With Sarah stealing money for a nose job and more concerned about her hair while Danny is dealing with a bully (Jon Kaminski Jr.) over owed money and is more concerned about the TV reception rather than his Hebrew studies. Larry and Arthur move to a nearby motel as Larry is bewildered by Arthur's troubled state of mind as well as complex number problems that all has to do with science.

After talking to a sympathetic attorney in Don Milgram (Adam Arkin), Larry goes to three visits with different rabbis over his personal and existential troubles. The first was a young junior rabbi in Scott Ginzler (Simon Helberg) whose guidance was unhelpful. After a tragic incident involving the Gopnik family, Larry turns to Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner) tells a strange story about a dentist (Michael Tezla) obsessed with the model of a man's teeth that featured a Hebrew message. Faced with money problems and a spiritual crisis along with mounting legal troubles with Arthur getting trouble with the authorities. Larry has a brief encounter with a sexy neighbor in Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker) where Larry discovers marijuana for the first time. At the urgency of Milgram, Larry tries to have a meeting with an aging rabbi named Marshak (Alan Mandell) as his spiritual and existential troubles would finally collide as the day to Danny's Bar Mitzvah moves closer.

The Coen Brothers are always known for tackling certain environments and situations that goes on around them whether it's humorous or very dark. With this film, it's a mixture of both but from a more personal point of view as the Coen Brothers go back in time to 1967 in Minnesota where they grew up as kids. Particularly with their Jewish background and days at Hebrew school. Yet, the film is about a lot of things including existentialism and spirituality. The film begins with a strange story about a cursed couple (Allen Lewis Rickman & Yelena Shmulenson) in an old time who meets a strange man (Fyvush Finkel) where the woman claims the man died three years ago. The little story, presented in a full-screen ratio would set the stage of what is to come.

A lot of the ideas and turmoil that Larry Gopnik faces is all based on the story of Job. A man who had everything and then loses everything. The Coen Brothers have Larry be challenged that is all around him. A disgruntled student angry over a failing grade as he tries to bribe him and later, threaten to sue him. An intimidating neighbor (Peter Breitmayer) who is trying to build something near Larry's property line. A failing marriage as the wife goes to a man who has more to offer. Children who are disrespectful. A selfish yet troubled brother and a possible tenure that is threatened. All of this puts Larry Gopnik into a crisis that he is facing as he is losing everything while trying to deal with what he can.

The script is truly complex with elements of humor and drama while there's small moments of violent scenes all of which are fantasy. Yet, it's all about Larry and his fears of what could happen as he faces the loss of everything he's worked for and believed in. At the same time, there's little subplot that revolves around Larry's life as his brother is a man who could be a genius but lacks any social skills while Larry's son is dealing with a bully whom he owes money to.

The direction of the Coen Brothers is truly spectacular in its intimate setting and unique compositions. The recreation of 1967 Minnesota looks very beautiful with great detail as the Coen Brothers take everyone back in time. The camera angles and compositions, a lot of which are quintessential Coen Brothers in their trademark is definitely stylish but also engaging. From the first 10-15 minutes of the film where it is set at a very different world and time with a full-screen theatrical presentation ratio. The rest of the film has a look and feel that is the late 1960s with a lot of music and objects including a great scene where Larry and Mrs. Samsky gets stoned. While there's a few anachronisms over a couple albums by Santana and Creedence Clearwater Revival from 1970 and a song by Jimi Hendrix that was recorded after 1967.

Those are minor since it's all about a certain time and what is happening. Even in the way the Coen Brothers wrap things up that features an ending that really challenges convention. The abrupt ending is really an allusion to a conversation Larry would have with a rabbi about the way things work in life. What the Coen Brothers create is a challenging yet personal film about spirituality and existentialism that is complex but also rewarding in what is needed to be said. It can be interpreted quite simply whether it matters or not. It's all about open interpretation as the Coen Brothers create what is definitely one of their finest films to date.

After taking a break from the Coen Brothers by not doing work on their previous film Burn After Reading, cinematographer Roger Deakins returns to the fold in creating some of his best camera work for the duo. Deakins' colorful look of 1967 Minnesota is full of life while the opening scene is done with intimate, dark colors and a chilling feel that is beautiful. The work for the interior and exterior shots are brilliant as Deakins definitely has a lot to work with while putting out some weird, fuzzy shots for some of the stoned sequences of the film.

The Coen Brothers, under their Roderick Jaynes pseudonym, does some excellent work in the editing as they give the film a nice, leisurely-paced feel while slowing things down for dramatic tension. The use of smooth transitions and rhythmic cuts work in conveying the sense of drama and turmoil over Larry's emotional crisis as it features a great parallel scene between Larry and Sy in their cars. Production designer Jess Gonchor along with set decorator Nancy Haigh and art director Deborah Jensen do a phenomenal job with the look of the film from the use of 1960s car, objects, and radio transistors to help give the film a 1960s feel and tone.

Longtime Coen Brothers collaborator in costume designer Mary Zophres does great work in the look of the clothing that the characters wear. From the rabbi garbs and Hebrew hats the Jewish community wears to the 1960s dresses and clothes that the women wear. All of which has an authentic look that is fascinating as Zophres deserves a lot of commendation for her work. Another key Coen Brothers collaborator in sound editor Skip Lievsay along with sound designer Craig Berkey also do great work in the sound department. From the waves of sound in the antenna to the atmosphere of the synagogues and places that Larry is at as the sound work is truly spectacular.

Longtime Coen Brothers collaborator and music composer Carter Burwell creates an eerie yet beautiful score that revels in the dark atmosphere of the film as well as its dramatic tone. With a light but also heavy orchestral score, Burwell arranges them in an understated tone as it's a score piece that is truly eerie. The soundtrack of the film is filled with a lot of 1960s music, notably the Jefferson Airplane that begins with Somebody To Love and three other tracks while Jimi Hendrix's Machine Gun also appears in the film for a dramatic-heavy scene.

The casting longtime Coen Brothers collaborator Ellen Chenoweth with Rachel Tenner is truly amazing with the use of mostly unknown actors. Cameo appearances from such Coen Brothers associates like Steve Park as Clive's father, Katherine Borowitz as a friend of Larry's at a picnic, and Michael Lerner as an associate of Milgram are fun to watch. Notable small roles that are definitely memorable from their look and appearances include Tim Russell & Jim Lichtscheidl as detectives, Warren Keith as the voice of a Columbia Records music shop worker Dick Dutton, Claudia Wilkens as Rabbi Marshak's secretary, Michael Tezla as a dentist, Peter Breitmayer as an intimidating neighbor who could be an anti-Semite, Jon Kaminski Jr. as Danny's bully Mike Fagle, and Benjy Portnoe as Danny's stoner buddy. In the first scene of the film, Allen Lewis Rickman & Yelena Shmulenson are great as a couple believed to be curse while Fyvush Finkle is hilarious as a man who is believed to be dead.

Adam Arkin is very good as Larry's sympathetic divorce lawyer Don Milgram while David Kang is also good as the slimy, vengeful Korean student Clive. Amy Landecker is excellent as the seductive yet cool Mrs. Samsky while Alan Mandell is funny as the aging Rabbi Marshak that includes a hilarious scene with Larry's son. Simon Helberg and George Wyner are great in their respective roles of weird rabbis with the young Helberg as a laid-back junior rabbi while Wyner has a scene-stealing moment as an unconventional rabbi. Jessica MacManus and Aaron Wolff are wonderful as two of Larry's kids with MacManus as the mean Saran and Wolff as the secretive Danny who often complains about the TV reception.

Richard Kind is very good as the troubled yet selfish Arthur who likes to sleep in basements and take advantage of his brother's goodwill while is revealed to a man with such brilliance but a lack of social skills. Sari Lennick is great as Judith, Larry's wife who is tired of Larry and wants something new in Sy as she is a woman wanting a change. Fred Melamed is fantastic as Sy Ableman, a man who doesn't take things very seriously while being someone who really does care about Larry despite what he's doing to him as Melamed is truly a scene-stealer throughout the entire film. Finally, there's Michael Stuhlbarg in a breakthrough performance as Larry Gopnik. A God-fearing man whose life unravels through changes as he tries to confront all that is happening to him. Stuhlbarg, who is known primarily as a theater actor, definitely rise up to the challenge as he creates a character that is memorable and relatable while providing questions and answer about what happens when everything is taken away.

A Serious Man is definitely one of the Coen Brothers' best films of their career as it is a provocative film that challenges spirituality and existentialism. Featuring a great cast led by Michael Stuhlbarg and amazing technical work from several of the Coen Brothers' regular collaborators. It's a film that reaches the heights of classics like Barton Fink, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men. While some audiences might be a little confused or put off by the Coen Brothers' quirky sense of humor and ability to asks questions rather than give answers. It's a film that is a very high-brow piece of art that won't be for everyone since it demands a lot of patience and interpretation from the audience about what they just saw. While it may not be one of their more accessible films, A Serious Man is another winning achievement from the Coen Brothers.

© thevoid99 2012


Anonymous said...

I didn't think this one was as great as everybody was saying at the time but re-watching it a couple of months ago, I realized that this is the Coens being original and very quirky. Much like their old stuff except without the wood-chippers. Good review Steve.

Anonymous said...

i've come to appreciate this one much more. hated it when i first saw it though.