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It is 1967, and Larry Gopnik, a physics professor at a quiet Midwestern university, has just been informed by his wife Judith that she is leaving him. She has fallen in love with one of his more pompous acquaintances Sy Ableman.
Joel & Ethan Coen don't know how to make a bad movie. Even their lesser work like "Intolerable Cruelty" and "The Ladykillers" are polished, entertaining and ten times better than most of the schlock out there. The last few years they have been on a roll with "No Country for Old Men", "Burn After Reading" and now "A Serious Man". These guys are right up there in the pantheon of great cinematic maestros and show no signs of slowing down. When it comes to their latest film, "A Serious Man", I have but one thing to say:
Best. Coen. Brothers. Movie. Ever.
Broadway veteran Michael Stuhlbarg stars as Larry Gopnik in this 1960's re-telling of the story of Job from the Bible. Gopnik is a math teacher at the local university. He is constantly worried about money problems. Early on his wife (Sari Lennick) informs him that she is leaving him for Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), Larry's friend and now her lover. She offers very little in the way of explanation. As Larry struggles to keep his life together, he must also deal with an oafish brother (Richard Kind) with a cyst to drain nightly, a son who is getting ready for his forthcoming Bar Mitzvah and a student at school he offers him a bribe for a grade change. "A Serious Man" is a film about one man who goes out of his way to do the right things in life, but is constantly beset on all sides by horrific and unbelievable situations. In this film, it does not pay to be a good guy.
There is something unsettling about this film; a quiet dread that creeps around the characters throughout. You feel something approaching -- something you can't quite put your finger on. You never really know how Larry is going to end up and you're always left wondering why these things would happen to such a nice guy? The writing is spot-on -- sharp, crisp and, at times, downright hysterical. The Coen Brothers have a knack for creating memorable supporting characters that live inside of a realistic, yet totally imagined world. Like "Fargo" and "Raising Arizona", these characters are eccentric enough to entertain us yet subtle and sad enough to simultaneously break our hearts. Some of the funniest moments in the film come from Larry as he visits three rabbis and his attorney (Adam Arkin). That evolution is nice to see unfold.
In his first cinematic role, Michael Stuhlbarg is exceptional and Oscar-worthy as Larry. He finds a nice balance between confused and determined. We root for his character yet start to think that, if we keep rooting for him, we will eventually go down with the sinking ship. Fred Melamed is just perfect as Larry's former friend turned wife's lover. He speaks with a soothing and re-assuring tone that feels like total bologna and then does horrible things behind his back. Richard Kind is also quite superb as Larry's brother who is working on a book that will explain the secrets of the universe. The truth is -- there is no false performance here and everyone fits right where the Coens have placed them.
Carter Burwell's score helps add to the sense of impending doom. You feel there is a storm coming, which is perfect when you consider the end of the film, which also happens to be one of the most perfect endings you're likely to see in a film this year or any other. The cinematography by Roger Deakins goes perfect with the score and helps establish that same mood -- very similar to what was accomplished in "Doubt" with the use of Dutch angles. The time period is not overdone and takes a backseat to the performances, but this film does just look and feel like a bland suburb in the 1960's.
I really can't recommend this film enough. It's the best film of 2009, hands down. As I said before, I don't think the Coen Brothers know how to make a bad film. I sincerely hope this film isn't forgotten about come awards time and receives the praise and recognition it deserves. It's easy to sidestep this one because it doesn't have the dramatic weight of "No Country for Old Men" on the surface. On the surface, it seems like another one of their comedies. But underneath, "A Serious Man" is very dark and very scary. 10/10.
- added January 18, 2010 at 10:47pm
Goddamnit... I hate fucking agreeing with you so
readily, but this was excellent.
laughing, albeit morbidly at times, all the way
through. This movie just swept me up and had me
smiling all the way through, from every
performance to every pieceof dialouge, excellence.
The dream sequences being some of the greatest
I've ever seen, and possibly the best ending to
any Coen movie yet. Really, I was able to just
lay back and enjoy it all... I didn't DO