A SERIOUS MAN
It's 1967 and Midwestern physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) starts to see his life unravel when his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) prepares to leave him for their seriously pompous friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) - as he wait nervously to learn if he has been voted a tenured position at the college - even as a Korean student tries to bribe him for a passing grade. His teenage children Danny (Aaron Wolf) and Sarah (Jessica McManus) are off the planet and his unemployable brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is sleeping on the couch - still. His self esteem in ruins and his prospects of a steady, happy life receding daily, things get even more complicated for Larry, after a couple of car accidents.
Review by Louise Keller:
I suppose you could say this is the Coen Brothers' take on The Meaning of Life, illustrated by the well of traditions from which Jews draw. It's a keenly observed view of life in 1967 from the perspective of Michael Stuhlbarg's physics professor Larry Gopnik, whose life is a mess. From the start, we know the characters in this overtly Jewish environment are very familiar to Joel and Ethan Coen. This is the world in which they were obviously brought up.
The reality is laid out and carved up with great affection. It's intriguing, dense, occasionally bewildering, wryly amusing and tragic in the way that all life is a tragedy - unless you can peer through the fog and see the brightness of the stars. This is like no other Coen Brothers film and one that is unlikely to please everyone. After all, there are no big name stars; there is no simplistic plot and it's very - dare I say - Jewish? But these elements also make it unique and are a big part of the film's charm.
How can Larry achieve his aspirations of becoming A Serious Man, when the Gods (or certainly the Rabbis) seem to conspire against him? And everything goes wrong at once? You know, like Murphy's Law? How can someone 'who hasn't done anything' be blamed for everything? His wife (Sari Lennick) wants to marry another man; the 'other' man (Fred Melamed) is a huggie-touchie type. His black-sheep brother (Richard Kind) is creating havoc as well as a probability map of the universe, his hair-and-nose obsessed teenage daughter (Jessica McManus) bickers constantly with his son (Aaron Wolff), who is preparing for his Bah Mitzvah, when is isn't complaining the TV reception for his favourite TV show F-Troop is fuzzy. This reminds me of the ironic situation involving a disgruntled student, unwilling to accept his F grade.
Of course we feel a lot of sympathy for poor Larry, who is a victim of himself and his circumstance. So what is the meaning of life and how does Larry get through his trials and tribulations? The three rabbis offer good advice: there's a riddle involving a story about a dentist and there's the issue of perspective ('Things aren't so bad; just look at the parking lot'). And don't forget The Uncertainty Principle.
Theatre star Michael Stuhlbarg is a knockout as the well-meaning Larry, while every single role is played to perfection. I guarantee Woody Allen will love this film - just as I do - for its truthful depiction, great characterisations and bite. The beginning is a surprise, too.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
A Serious Man is a homecoming for the Coen brothers, a darkly comic cinematic visit to the time of their childhood in 1967 in the US Midwest, and although it is not our environment and our family and our neighbours, the mood of the film is so authentic we accept it as true. It's not a typical film, not even for the Coens, known for their avoidance of formula. This time, the story is not so much a story as a slice of life, caught between other slices which we just don't happen to see. And to my mind, it's a reminder of that old twist on an even older adage, that when one door slams another one opens. Not in the Coens' world view. Here, as one door shuts, another one slams in your face. No studio would ever let them finish the film on the note the Coens choose ... but audiences with a keen appreciation of the way real life works will welcome it as a stamp of reality.
The film opens with a sequence that serves as a kind of metaphorical foreword: it's a strange little fable of a poor Yiddish couple in a remote village and an incident that is baffling to them - and even more baffling for us. Yet it will hang over proceedings with its unstated fatalism: that's life. Don't try and understand it, it has no meaning. The rest of the film is offered as some sort of proof. And while the Coens are talking about life from their Jewish pov, it's all too true for everyone else as well. Oh, OK, it's worse for the Jews...
The Coens have gathered a great bunch of actors to portray characters from their past, sometimes built from several, sometimes a sole figure, such as the Yoda like old Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell), who hardly speaks but is revered for his perceived wisdom. Michael Stuhlbarg delivers Larry Gopnik as a man searching for not only meaning but a sense of worth. Nobody sees him as a 'serious man' - serious here meant as of standing, of depth, worthy of respect. The joke is that the fake old fogey, Sly Abelman, beautifully played by Fred Melamed, manages to fool everyone that he IS, a serious man, when what he really is a bag of wind. So are most of those around him who are supposed to help.
There are many such elements in this often subtle, often outrageous and perhaps selfish film (they didn't make it for us, they made it for themselves - but we can share it); those who approach the film with a genuine curiosity will get something out of it, but those who speak only one or two cinematic languages will be dissatisfied.
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A SERIOUS MAN (M)
CAST: Simon Helberg, Adam Arkin, Richard Kind, Michael Stuhlbarg, George Wyner, Fyvush Finkel, Katherine Borowitz, Peter Breitmayer, Amy Landecker, Stephen Park, Sari Lennick
PRODUCER: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
DIRECTOR: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
SCRIPT: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Roger Deakins
EDITOR: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen as Roderick Jaynes
MUSIC: Carter Burwell
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Jess Gonchor
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Universal
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 19, 2009