- Rated R
- Buy the BD
All photos © Focus Features
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
n the musical comedy, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” the Coen brothers refashioned Homer’s “The Odyssey” into a story about three convicts searching for hidden treasure in the 1930s. Their attempt at modernizing the classic tale proved to be a success (both critically and commercially), so they’ve taken the same approach with their new film, “A Serious Man.” This time around, however, instead of adapting another epic poem by Homer, they’ve mined the ultimate source material – The Old Testament – and in doing so created perhaps their darkest film yet. A low-key black comedy filmed with a cast of mostly unknowns, "A Serious Man" probably won’t perform like some of their more mainstream features, but it will still be a major contender come awards time.
A modern day retelling of the Book of Job set in 1967 Minnesota, the film stars Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnick, a well-meaning physics professor whose life begins to unravel just as he’s about to make tenure. First, his wife (Sari Lennick) informs him that she’s fallen in love with their good friend – the titular serious man, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) – and wants him to move out of the house. That also includes his brother Arthur (Richard Kind), a jobless gambling addict who’s been living on their couch for months. Then, a South Korean student (David Kang) attempts to bribe Larry for a passing grade in his class, only to start receiving anonymous letters jeopardizing his promotion when he refuses. Desperate to get an answer as to why all of this is happening, Larry seeks out the advice of three rabbis.
Anyone familiar with the Book of Job can probably start to see the similarities, but while the movie is definitely steeped in religion – from the parallels between Larry and Job to the part that Jewish culture plays in the story – it’s more about how people deal with the uncertainties of life. Though the main plot addresses this in a relatively enigmatic manner (if you thought the ending of “No Country for Old Men” was anticlimactic, you’re not going to like the way this ends), the Coens do broach the subject in much simpler terms through two stories within the film. The first takes place several hundred years before and centers on a Yiddish couple who debate over whether or not their nighttime visitor is a dybbuk (or demon), while the other involves a dentist who discovers a secret message written in Hebrew on the inside of his patient’s teeth. To say any more would ruin some of the film’s finest moments, but the Yiddish folk tale reminded me a lot of the opening from “Inglourious Basterds” with its savvy blend of suspense and humor.
The great thing about “A Serious Man” is that there isn’t any one right answer. Many will come to the conclusion that Larry is being tested by God, but it’s just as plausible that by mistreating their protagonist, the Coens are simply exposing the monsters around him. Could they be dybbuks? Perhaps, but it’s more likely that all they're really trying to say is that you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff, because no matter how bad your life might seem, it can always get worse. That may sound like a pretty bleak life lesson, but the film is layered with enough humor that although it may seem unbearable to sit through, you’re really glad you did by the time it’s over. You can’t say that about too many movies, but Ethan and Joel Coen have done just that with their latest modern classic.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
The Coen brothers don’t record too many audio commentaries for their films, so it’s not surprising that “A Serious Man” is lacking one. The single-disc release does include a great production featurette about “Creating 1967,” however, as well as a making-of featurette filled with cast and crew interviews (“Becoming Serious”) and a short video montage highlighting the Jewish terms used in the film (“Hebrew & Yiddish for Goys”).