A Serious Man
So says protagonist Larry Gopnik (relative unknown Michael Stuhlbarg), and this stuttered, irresolute statement succinctly sums up the Coen brothers most recent dark toned comedy A Serious Man. Larry’s wife – seemingly out of the blue – files for divorce (and also a culturally formal Jewish ‘Get’) so that she can marry one of his more important academic colleagues; Larry’s mentally unstable brother, who has outstayed his welcome at their house, seems to be in trouble with the law; and one of Larry’s students is trying to bribe him to get a passing grade just as his review for tenure has come up. With life in this sudden downward spiral (that seems beyond his control) our Joe average Physics teacher is put into an existential spin and discovers afresh his Jewish faith in a bid to find an answer to the question humanity has asked ever since we became cognisant:
“What does it all mean?”
Like their early feature Fargo, A Serious Man is set in the Coens’ homeland of the American Midwest. More than any of their films to date it explores human problems through the lens of their Jewishness. So much so that the film opens with a seven and half minute Yiddish ‘folktale’ (of the Coens’ own devising) as an unconnected but tonally significant prelude to the film proper. Accordingly Larry’s story is set in a Jewish community – he teaches at a Jewish school – and Hebrew and Yiddish phrases are peppered naturally throughout the dialogue. Nevertheless the Coens bring to bear on their own cultural heritage the same wry gaze they have employed on a multitude of cultural/social groupings across their cinematic oeuvre – such as ‘the South’ in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and a plethora of stereotypical LA subcultures in The Big Lebowski (1998).
Regular Coen cinematographer Roger Deakins’ camera work helps to inject life into what might otherwise be a bland suburban setting. Colours are vibrant and shots well constructed. On occasion his focal transitions (within the same shot) are reminiscent of a series of still photos, as in the bar mitzvah scene that wraps the film. Also of interest is his choice of lens employed during the film’s two drug scenes which give an appropriately peculiar visual feel. Settings and locations, though low key, are uniformly excellent creating a very authentic Midwest circa 1967 without ever falling into iconography or the historical box ticking exercise that many period features seem to indulge in. The directors build on this sense of authenticity by utilising locations and people from the community in which they are filing. For example: a local synagogue built in the 60s is chosen for a number of scenes and various synagogue members are used as extras performing the ceremonies on film as they would in real life. A Serious Man’s production, as much as the story itself, reveals both the warmth and bemused humour of master filmmakers surveying their own cultural context.
With a film like this I think, thematically, the Coens achieve a similar end to the work of contemporary fraternal Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Like a Dardennes film – The Promise, Rosetta, The Son etc – the Coens take a small scale story with minor dramatic action and expose the interest, tension, problems and, in their case, humour to be found in the everyday. Larry’s life and problems – outside of any cultural unfamiliarity we may feel – are fairly ordinary but it is precisely because of this fact that we can more easily relate to his story arc. His search for meaning will mirror the thoughts of many who will watch the film and who will likely also face a similar lack of easy resolution. As stated by the father of the Korean student trying to bribe Larry to get a passing grade, maybe we all need to just “Please, accept the mystery”.
DVD Info + Special Features
This single disc version provides an excellent 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer; great if, like me, you’re viewing on a widescreen TV or monitor. Colours and picture are crisp and do justice to the cinematographer. Likewise, the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, though not creating any ‘wow’ in or of itself, matches the video in terms of quality.
Subtitles and language options are limited to English (with captions) and Castilian Spanish and the set of extra features are small but well selected. In lieu of the usual deleted scenes and theatrical trailer(s), Universal has packaged in some nice wee featurettes covering an overview of the production as a whole, the creation of the 1967 Midwest setting, and also a nice little video glossary of the Hebrew/Yiddish words and phrases used in the film. These features deliver more interest-per-minute value than many single disc releases and the Coens, as always, make for interested and well spoken interview subjects/commentators.
Single Disc Edition
Region 2,4 PAL
1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1
Languages: English or Castilian Spanish (with Castilian Spanish subtitles or English captions for the hearing impaired)
Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell
Rating: M – Contains violence, offensive language and drug use.
Duration: 101 mins
Genre: Black Comedy | Drama
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen (2009)
Actors: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, and Jessica McManus.