Rated: R for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence.
Release Date: 2009-10-02
Starring: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
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The brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, a filmmaker duo who have brought to the screen an amazing variety of pics, from the over-the-top “chainsaw massacre-style” “Blood Simple” of 1984 through the extraordinarily annoying “Fargo” to the superbly funny “Burn After Reading,” have at last decided to make a serous pic. That it opened the inaugural Friars Club Comedy Film Festival in New York does not make it a comedy. The Friars chose it for the marquee value of the Coens, which was a good move. “A Serious Man,” for which the duo share director, writer, and producer credit (Ethan is also production designer and editor, credited as Roderick James), is a drama in disguise, a drama performed by comedic actors. That doesn’t make it a bad picture. It just makes it difficult to review. That every other notice your critic has read seems to follow the press notes is testimony to that.
The Coens have been making feature films for 25 years. Working for them is almost a right of passage for top-tier Hollywood thesps. “A Serious Man” is an anomaly in that there are only two publicly recognizable names in the cast: Fyvush Finkel (who appears only in the opening reel) and (Richard Kind, who ably carries about a fourth of the film). Remainder of cast turn in excellent, if annoying performances and it is a credit to the Coens that they were able to find such excellent, inexpensive talent – Pic has a reported budget of $7 million.
Performances are annoying because of pic’s nature. It’s about annoying people. Set, except for opening reel which may or may not be connected to pic’s central action (a device used by Jean-Luc Goddard in the 1985 “Hail Mary” [Je Vous Salue, Marie”]), in a suburban Midwestern Conservative Jewish community in 1967, pic centers on college professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), pic’s schlemiel (the fellow on whom the soup is spilled). Gopnick is surrounded by schlimazels (folks who spill the soup). They include his wife (Sari Lennick), who leaves him for passive-aggressive neighbor Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed), his kids, Danny, a Bar-Mitzvah boy, and Sarah (Aaron Wolf and Jessica McManus), and brother Arthur (Richard Kind), a mathematical genius with tendencies to moral turpitude. Gopnick’s quest, if one could call it that, is to find out why his luck stinks. A real answer to such a question could function on interminable levels and still leave the questioner dizzy. At least give Gopnik credit for making the best of things between moments of despair. Instead, “A Serious Man” takes the route well travelled by Woody Allen (“Crimes and Misdemeanors”) and author Isaac Bashevis Singer. The twist is that it is loaded with comedic moments. It is almost as if the filmmakers were winking at the audience.
Gopnick is stymied at every turn. Not even the elderly senior rabbi at his synagogue will advise him. Everyone else in pic either talks over him or at him intending either to manipulate (Sy Abelman) or cover their ignorance (his lawyer, ably played by Adam Arkin, and the two younger rabbis). His kids have their own agenda, and brother (Richard Kind) is a millstone. Nobody communicates, with the possible exception of neighbor Mrs. Samsky (the smoking hot Amy Landecker) and near the end, the elderly Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell).
A subplot involving the pothead Bar Mitzvah boy who owes his connection $20, the Hebrew school teacher, and the elderly rabbi, is pic’s Rosetta Stone. The boy tucks $20 into his transistor radio case in Hebrew school and tries to pass it on to the connection, seated a row ahead of him. Teacher catches him and confiscates radio. Boy lives in fear of connection for rest of pic until his Bar Mitzvah, in which his performance and the lensing make one of the funniest stoned-out-of-one’s-mind Bar Mitzvah scenes in filmdom, owing a bit to the wedding in “The Graduate” for the guest reaction shots. After ceremony, boy is invited to meet privately with Rabbi Marshak. The old man quotes a Jefferson Airplane tune asking the boy what he’s going to do when everything goes wrong and there’s no hope. There’s no answer. He then hands him his transistor radio with the $20 bill still tucked in the leather case. It’s pic’s most honest moment – a bit like the moment in “Husbands and Wives” where Allen’s documentarian encounters the existential thought of Prof. Louis Levy (Martin S. Bergmann).
“A Serious Man” excels in performance, cinematography, set design (they nailed a period piece) and dialogue, if one can call it that. Editing and direction are economical, except for the opening reel, which begs the question, “Is this family cursed or has the opening reel nothing to do with anything else?” It’s one of pic’s many loose ends. Said loose ends both serve a point and annoy. One learns from “A Serious Man” the idea that life happens and one has to roll with it. One also learns that schlimazels are not immune to bad luck. One would wish that Hollywood vets the Coens could have tied it up in a tighter package. One may also wish that the Coens had a slightly lighter touch – the feather duster instead of the hammer – but perfection is a lot to ask.
One last note: There has been criticism of pic’s seemingly negative focus on a Jewish community. It is unwarranted. The Jewish community is simply context. Moreover, it is context the Coens know. Pic’s message, if there is one, is better told through the intellectually Jewish prism through which both Singer and Allen have worked so well. It could equally have been told through the French existentialist prism, but that might not go down so well with American auds. At least viewers reared on sitcoms can understand it. At 105 minutes this Focus Features release is not rated, but due to nudity, language, and adult situations, it is probably unsuitable for children.