I like the Coen brothers. I loved No Country For Old Men, I still enjoy quoting Frances McDormand lines from Fargo — I even appreciated their most recent project, Burn After Reading despite lukewarm reviews. So I went into A Serious Man with high expectations. Perhaps a bit too high.
The Coens go incredibly dark and thought-provoking this time around, and unfortunately without any big-named stars attached like Clooney a la Reading or O Brother, Where Art Thou?, A Serious Man probably won't live on as one of their more memorable films for viewers. In fact, many people will probably feel put off by it. To see what I mean,
A Serious Man opens like a horror movie, which isn't surprising given the Coen's propensity for heavy themes (and often a few stab wounds) in their stories. The music is a big player, creating tension that doesn't let up for the audience even when the screen goes to black. But the antagonizing score fits well within the nightmare existence of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor and devoted family man in '60s suburbia. First, his wife announces that she's leaving him for a touchy-feely close-talker; his unemployed brother spends entire 24-hour periods in his bathroom; and one of his foreign students is threatening to sue him. Really, the only thrill Gopnik ever gets in life is when his neighbor Mrs. Samsky sunbathes nude.
Poor Gopnik is a wound-up guy, and you feel for him and with him. (It's true; I had to decompress after this movie.) His world is spiraling out of control, so he seeks out three rabbis for a solution. Does Gopnik get the enlightenment he seeks? Not exactly, and neither do we as the audience.
There's not a single bad thing I can say about any of the actors. Each one was believable and charmingly offbeat in their role. The Coens are brilliant with character nuances — even some of the small two-minute parts managed to get laughs — but the larger picture just seemed murky from the get-go. The first five minutes of the film starts with a man in a village who accidentally invites a ghost home for dinner. It's all in Yiddish with subtitles, and it's almost like watching a stand-alone play, but I'm still not sure what it had to do with the rest of the plot, other than the Jewish religion and setting a dismal tone. So right away I felt semiconfused, but entertained nonetheless — which is pretty much how the duration of it went for me.
The film does have some great scenes — I loved the interaction between Gopnik and his foreign student, and his wife's new boyfriend Si is particularly funny — but trying to piece it together is a bit like banging your head against the wall (just like in the movie's trailer). I get that Gopnik's life sucks, but other than that, it's hard to tell exactly what we're supposed to glean from the story. I think that was sort of the point the Coens were trying to make — Gopnik doesn't get the answers he seeks, and neither do we.
Go see it if you're a hardcore Coenaholic, and enjoy the funny scenes without trying to analyze it too much. But if you prefer to dissect your movies, I'd say rent this one at home, because you may need to watch it twice.
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Photos courtesy of Focus Features