October 9, 2009

REVIEW: A Serious Man (A)

Consider some of the classic songs featured at pivotal moments of Coen Bros. movies: the operatic "Oh Danny Boy" in Miller's Crossing, the psychedelic "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" in The Big Lebowski, and the bluegrassy "Man of Constant Sorrow" in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, just to name a few. The tone and lyrics of each of these songs are essential to evoking a particular atmosphere in key scenes. But that's about where the meaning ends - within those scenes.

Then consider the use of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" in A Serious Man. The lyrics are not only key to the setting of the movie, but they are for the first time in a Coen film the backbone of the entire story. Recite the first two lines ("When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies") and you have explained the philosophical underpinnings of Larry Gopnik's mid-life crisis. Which is to say you haven't explained anything at all. Let me try to explain.

Set in their home state at the time of their childhood, and featuring characters that have clearly influenced their storytelling style, A Serious Man exists not only as the most personally realized film of the Coens' 25 year-long career, but quite certainly one of their best. In fact, on close examination this is the film that explains the thirteen that preceded it. You see by this really-but-not-really autobiography how they must have viewed the world as children, surrounded by a culture (Jewish Midwestern) and cast of characters (quirky, disturbed, confused) that would leave an impression on anyone. Fortunately for all of us, the brothers have been sharing their peculiar outlook on life through their films for years, culminating in a melancholic masterpiece that will delight their fans as much as it disinterests their critics (all of them fools, anyway, right?).

"Receive everything that happens to you with simplicity," reads a rabbinical quote at the beginning of the film. This is followed by an absorbing and mysterious scene set generations ago in Poland. We're not sure who these characters are or what they're supposed to represent, but things start making sense as we're suddenly thrust into 1967 by those Jefferson Airplane lyrics. The song is playing in the earphones of Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff), but his father, Prof. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), is the one who's figuratively hearing the words. He's a modern-day Job, navigating his way through a host of dilemmas related to his physical health, his marriage, his job, his children, his brother, his neighbor, his students, his - you get the picture.

Larry pleads to anyone who will listen, "I haven't done anything!," which is meant to both excuse and assuage himself but accomplishes neither objective. Like any rational person - particularly any rational person of faith, Larry eventually makes the mistake of looking for easy answers to the questions that burden his life, knowing no such answers exist but thinking he'll make a breakthrough nonetheless.

Not since John Turturro embodied Barton Fink has a character in a Coen brothers movie dredged through such ponderous philosophical terrain, and never have matters of faith been so deeply entrenched in one of their stories. A Serious Man provides no easy answers, and it's one of the few films they've made that actually poses heavy questions. Coen characters have had their shares of problems, that's a given, but none of them been so unjustly treated as Larry Gopnik - and even then actually been cognizant of it. 

Some of their "victims" (Ed Tom Bell, Ed Crane, Barton Fink) have been caught up in the wrong situation at the wrong time, whereas others have been weasels (Jerry Lundegaard, The Dude, Everett, most recently Osbourne Cox) who deserved the bad karma that was chasing them. And then there are the heroes - Norville Barnes, Tom Reagan, H.I. McDunnough, Marge Gunderson - who overcame some disadvantage to ultimately save the day.

But not Larry Gopnik - he's not a martyr or a hero or a crook. He's really trying to be "a serious man", trying as hard as he can to remain on the straight and narrow with his work, his family, and his faith. But it doesn't work. Something's askew in Larry's universe and disaster continues to strike, harshly and repeatedly. Everyone tells him to "see the rabbi", to which he scoffs like a teenager told to "turn down that music!". When he finally does see the rabbi(s), of course, his confusion increasingly ferments into frustration and despair. It's terrifying and, at times, hilarious.

It requires a capable actor to handle Larry's emotional nuances and deadpan reactions to the inevitability of life, and Michael Stuhlbarg is certainly up to the task. You would expect no less from the Coens in casting the rest of the characters, some of whom you'll recognize but 32 of whom are played by local actors here in the Twin Cities. Speaking of which, aside from a couple of obscure references (I'm sure the discussion about Ronald Meshbesher only produced riotous laughter in theaters here), you might never know that this story is set in Minnesota. 

I dare say that all of the hullabaloo about the local filming didn't even amount to much in terms of local sights, but nevertheless the culture is key and the Coens nailed it once again, from deer hunting to tornado drills to the Red Owl grocery chain. Roger Deakins doesn't do much to make our fair state look interesting, but he employs some of his favorite pitched-angle closeups that work in some scenes but fail in others. Carter Burwell also has fun with a moody score that ebbs and flows at just the right moments.

And, of course, the Coens once again hit their comedic notes with perfect pitch and timing. There are a few instantly classic lines ("Be out in a minute!", and "Look at the parking lot, Larry!"), not to mention the token one or two characters whose sole purpose appears to be comic relief (here, Sy Ableman and Rabbi Nachtner). Yes, there is a lot of comedy in A Serious Man, which seems in opposition to the depression I've described yet perfectly in line with the Coen brand of storytelling, which at the moment is of the highest quality.

Whether this will end up as successful either critically or commercially as their other films (a Best Picture nomination in an expanded field this year deserves to be considered an absolute lock) remains to be seen, but in any event I think A Serious Man will end up being many people's favorite Coen brothers movie. It's tenderly made, warm and strangely comforting, both because you can relate to Larry's suffering and be removed from it at the same time. 

In a way it's also like that Jefferson Airplane song, full of meaning yet difficult to explain. As you can see from my light treatment here, I've been thinking about this movie for the last week and I still don't know how to process it (and on what level - artistic, critical, philosophic?). I thought taking the time to actually sit down and write some thoughts would move me along, but I don't think I'm there yet and I may not be until I see it again. Better just let it continue marinating in the meantime and chalk this one up to that crafty Coen magic. 

Writing - 10
Acting - 9
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 47/50= 94% = A


  1. Indeed Dan, it does push real close to the top spot in their pantheon, in fact it may reach there for me after a second viewing.

    What you say here:

    "Not since John Turturro embodied Barton Fink has a character in a Coen brothers movie dredged through such ponderous philosophical terrain, and never have matters of faith been so deeply entrenched in one of their stories. A Serious Man provides no easy answers, and it's one of the few films they've made that actually poses heavy questions...."

    --is absolutely true as far as I'm concerned. And I dare say that the two off-Broadway stage plays directed by Ethan Coen, which had runs in Manhattan over the last three years, "Almost an Evening" and "Offices" exhibited that heavy philosophical slant that was taken up here in A SERIOUS MAN. It appears that Ethan's influence here is stronger than Joel's. I was fortunate to have seen both plays (and even managed to review them) and the first one, "Almost an Evening" bears some interesting parallels in regards to mortality, while the second one contains a fair share of that twisted humor we saw in A SERIOUS MAN.

    You are in your element here Dan, in Minneapolis with the Coens, and this culminating review (after your Q & A) last week really inspired you to pen one of your Getafilm masterpieces, even though you again show your modesty by saying that you can figure out where to go:

    "In a way it's also like that Jefferson Airplane song, full of meaning yet difficult to explain. As you can see from my light treatment here, I've been thinking about this movie for the last week and I still don't know how to process it (and on what level - artistic, critical, philosophic?)"

    Dan, I have the same quandery! Ha!

  2. Yeah I remember your reports on those Coen plays, Sam, and was thinking about it during that discussion with them here a couple weeks ago. It is a little curious that after 25 years working together Ethan broke off with a stage career, or at least a hobby career.

    And despite your kind words I'm going to maintain my humility with this write-up. Anyone looking for an in-depth analysis and/or critique of ASM should seek a professional opinion. This is simply a diary entry of my thoughts, and a record stating that I loved ASM as much as any other movie so far in 2009. It's a perplexing, puzzling film, but if I try to overthink it anymore I could be at risk of losing the fun of it. So I'll just leave it with this.

    I guess I could saved everybody a lot of time and just written that, but I've clearly never been one for brevity!

  3. Snuck in there, Danny - I hope it comes your way soon, depending on the success of the limited release!

  4. I'm actually heading out to New York next weekend, so I'm sure I'll be able to find it there. I'm really looking forward to seeing a different type of Coen film.

  5. Sweetness - the mecca of filmgoing in the U.S. (just ask Sam). If you can't get to ASM there maybe check out what's playing at the Angelika.

  6. Good to know. I'm not too familiar with the theaters there so I'll check these out. Thanks.

  7. But have you watched the trailer yet?

  8. Ha, yeah I did actually take a look last week when I was trying to process. I guess I can see why people went nuts over it, but in actuality I think it's a little misleading in terms of slapstick absurdity, almost reminiscent of Burn After Reading, which with this has very little in common.

  9. Hey Daniel, have you ever posted an article describing your grading system? If not, no big deal but if you have I'd be interested to read it.

  10. Hehe, good question, Danny. It's actually come up here a number of times, with blogger friend Fletch holding my feet to the fire for a few of the numbers I've thrown out. My best explanations have come in the discussions with him about some reviews (and I can't even remember which ones they are now), but here's a silly breakdown from one of my first posts here more than two years ago:

    "Grade: (I was a math teacher for a few years - check this out)

    * Writing (10) - Did I find the dialogue clever, realistic, etc.?
    * Acting (10) - How well did the actors do compared to others who may have played the part? Jim Carrey in Dumb & Dumber is the gold standard here. You think I'm crazy, but seriously, that's acting.
    * Production (10) - How were the visual effects? Did the movie drag? Were innovative camera techniques used? Were there major goofs?
    * Emotional Impact (10) - Did I laugh at the humor, cry at the tragedy, etc. - or was I bored?
    * Music (5) - Was the musical score memorable, the soundtrack appropriate?
    * Societal Significance (5) - Crash scores higher than Batman because it's a more important film to see. Therefore, it gets a higher grade, basically setting apart the "entertaining" from the "educational." This is why Tommy Boy, an excellent all-around movie, is not considered one of the best of all time.

    Total / Total Possible = % = Grade"

    The Social Significance grade has been the biggest kicker for most people, as it is completely subjective and pretty unpredictable. In the case of A Serious Man, I say yes, this movie absolutely has social significance for its exploration of Judaism, relationships, and suffering.

  11. Thanks, this is all great stuff to know. As far as the social significance grade, I can see where it would be the most controversial one because, for example, taking points off for significance on a film like The Dark Knight is justified in terms of it's not necessary to see vs. Crash in terms of learning about society, but the film does have some very profound and relevant themes so that's tough to represent.

    Just a side note: What made you give A Serious Man a 9 in acting? Not that that is a bad grade at all, but I would be curious to know which performance didn't hit home for you.

  12. Looking forward to the film opening in my neck of the woods.

    I ran across a new book at the library last night and thought of you Dan, "The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers"


    I just got a chance to skim it last night but looks like it might be interesting. Covers all 14 films, even including ASM.

  13. Danny, I should note that I wrote that thing about Batman the year before TDK was actually released. I was kind of just pulling Batman (the original) out as an example of a random superhero/action flick with little real-world relevancy. As it happens, when TDK did come out I gave it a 4/5 for social significance. But then I wrote a Taking It Home piece about it, which would suggest that I did find it quite relevant. And then I went back on all of that this year. So I've been pretty schizo with TDK, but my point is that you are right about it having social significance.

    I don't think there is a performance in ASM that I would qualify as bad, per se, but I wasn't so impressed by the teenage actors, Sari Lennick as Larry's wife, and Amy Landecker as Mrs. Samsky. Really the whole cast skated a thin line between believable and over-the-top silly, but for a bunch of mostly unestablished actors I still considered it strong work across the board.

    Brewmeister, thanks for the heads-up. That sounds familiar, though there are so many "Dude Abides" things I could be thinking of something else. And I'm surprised that ASM is included as well. I've heard of that author, Cathleen Falsani, but I don't know recognize any of her other titles.

    Hope you guys enjoy it when you see it. There have been some great reviews popping up that explore it at a deeper level. I most recently read Kevin Bowen's.

  14. I still don't know how to process it (and on what level - artistic, critical, philosophic?). I thought taking the time to actually sit down and write some thoughts would move me along, but I don't think I'm there yet and I may not be until I see it again

    Boy, that sums up my reaction exactly. As soon as the closing credits started to roll, I turned to my friend and said "I think I need to see this again to really get my mind around it." I'm pretty sure it's brilliant, but I think there's a lot more than initially meets the eye. And,as someone only a few years younger than the Coens, I have some pretty clear memories of how homes and clothes and schools and so forth looked in the 60s, and the impeccable, evocative set dressing here kept distracting me.

  15. Glad I'm not alone in my contemplation, Pat! It's beginning to look less likely that I'm going to be seeing this again in the theater, but then again it may be playing here in Coenland for more months than normal. Either way I think I've come to accept that it's just not going to connect with audiences that aren't already somewhat familiar with the Coens. Which shouldn't automatically exclude it from Oscar talk.

    I liked the 60's stylings as well, and ironically I think ASM actually features as much CGI as the rest of their movies. They said they had to digitally remove every single tree in the yards and on the horizon in the Gopnik's neighborhood, as those saplings have all obviously become old-growth trees by now.

  16. Ok, so I wanted to wait until after I'd seen it to read your review, though I did see that you'd given it an A.

    Now, I know that the Coens could make Independence Day or 2012 and earn an A from you - ;) - but seriously, I don't get it. Not being Jewish, half the movie (if not more) went over my head, but it's not like that's where my problems started and stopped. Was there a story told here? If so, what was it? Was there ANY purpose to the opening scene, or am I just too dense to get it? Is there a reason the film ends abruptly - I'm left thinking that the Coens just don't know how to end their movies, so they just finish a scene one day and say "Welp, I guess that'll do it!" This was a random assortment of memories and vignettes, not a movie.

    On the other hand, I greatly enjoyed seeing Fletch's attorney, Mr. Arnold T. Pants, Esq., playing the 2nd rabbi. :D

  17. Hey now, I definitely did not endorse either Intolerable Cruelty or The Ladykillers. Ugh. But yeah, you're right, otherwise I'm pretty much in the tank for the Coens.

    Well I'm not Jewish, either, but I guess either my knowledge of Judaism and experience with it with friends and holidays on the East Coast, or my own personal faith (probably both) helped me connect pretty easily to Larry. If you are familiar with the Book of Job I think you'll see the movie much differently as well (but maybe you do, in which case nevermind, I'm wrong).

    I don't think there was meant to be a clean story so much as there is just an observation of Larry's suffering and subsequent coping strategies during this critical period of his life. Will he reject his faith altogether? Will it become even stronger through these trials? Are people foolish for seeking guidance from religious leaders? Does life even make sense?

    Yeah, it's not really a traditional story, but I still found it both entertaining and thought-provoking. I don't think you necessarily "missed" anything; the reaction to this movie likely depends on who's watching it and at what point in their lives. Captain Obvious, I know, but I mean more so than something like Burn After Reading.

    My understanding of the beginning is that they may be ancestors of Larry and he is suffering for their sins, or that the family bloodline is just "cursed" to begin with, or that Judaism and suffering have always gone hand in hand, or that if you don't "receive everything that happens to you with simplicity" you're bound to make things worse for yourself. No easy explanation, but enough for me. Same goes for the ending, for that matter. I think they definitely know how to end their movies!

    But on this point we agree: George Wyner was great as Rabbi Nachtner.

  18. ""What happened to the GOY ??'' asks Larry.
    ''WHO CARES'' responds Rabbi Nachtner

    this should sum up the feeling of the Coen's for anyone not of the tribe !!
    You idiot brothers should refund my money . I could have purchased CALL IT SLEEP and had some enjoyment .


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