After giving us one of the best films of the ’00s in No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers decided to slip one more in before they ended with A Serious Man, which also finds itself high on the list of this past decade’s accomplishments. A decidedly different film than anything the Coens wrote and directed yet this century, A Serious Man hearkens back to the Barton Fink era for the brothers, and in some ways it feels like they’ve come full circle — revisiting similar themes while displaying an increasingly brilliant pair of minds that are currently among the greatest in American cinema.
A Serious Man is deeply idiosyncratic — Coen fans will relish the often uncomfortably black humor and the rhythmic quality that the editing takes on — but it’s not an exercise in irrelevance, even though the film’s potential to alienate is obvious.
While working within their very specific framework, the Coens, along with cinematographer Roger Deakins, have meticulously crafted a cinematic world where every shot feels vital to the film’s structure. So many films being produced currently — even ones that are generally agreeable — have their share of throwaway scenes that might propel the film along, but are rather meaningless on their own merits. Not a Coen scene — the frame is always filled with something carefully designed to add meaning to the film, and it results in sheer pleasure amongst the consternation that the plot might evoke.
In A Serious Man, physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg in one of the year’s top performances) finds himself increasingly beleaguered by life — his tenure committee is receiving letters defaming him, his unemployed brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is always moping around the house, sebaceous cyst in tow, and his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), is leaving him for bearish family friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who’s all too eager to console him.
Stuhlbarg is fantastic as the alternately frantic and cautious Larry — a modern-day Job who can’t seem to find any answers, even from those who should know what they are. Character actors Melamed and Kind are at their best here too, adding grief to Larry’s life with their respective smarminess and ineptitude.
On its surface, A Serious Man plays like a string of bad luck and missed opportunities, punctuated by a very specific set of Jewish quirks, but there’s plenty more to the equation, and the film is rife with metaphysical and moral mysteries. From its seemingly unconnected opening prologue in Yiddish to its haunting final shot, A Serious Man has the feel of a film you’ll be coming back to again and again.
For more, here’s my review of the film for its theatrical release.
The Blu-ray Disc
A Serious Man is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, aside from the Jewish folk tale prologue, which is presented in 1.33:1, as it was theatrically. This is a gorgeous, richly detailed visual presentation that makes the most of Deakins’ expressive cinematography and the wide color palette he uses, from slightly psychedelic oranges to muddy earth tones to the impeccably green lawns of a Midwestern suburb. Images are sharply delineated, contrast is superb, and colors are consistent. To my eye, there’s not a flaw to be found here.
The audio is presented in a 5.1 DTS-HD mix that nicely takes advantage of the subdued sound design and the soundtrack packed full of Jefferson Airplane. While the dialogue in the front channel is the main attraction, the soundtrack and score by Carter Burwell add some heft, as does the film’s final disaster.
Unfortunately, there’s not much of notice as far as supplements go on the disc, although there’s something about the mysterious nature of the film that likely works better without a lot of ancillary explanation. A making-of featurette has short clips of interviews with the Coens and most of the principal cast, but it’s pretty superficial stuff, with actors explaining their characters and the Coens not saying much of anything. A shorter featurette looks at the set and costume design used to create the 1967 setting, and it’s fairly interesting as far as these things typically go. The final extra is a short guide to Hebrew and Yiddish for goys (that would be gentiles), translating the abundance of Jewish terms used in the film.
The Bottom Line
While A Serious Man doesn’t have a prayer at the Oscars, it’s nice to see the Academy at least recognize what may very well be the best film of the year. It’s a beautiful Blu-ray presentation and a film that ought to be close at hand for revisiting purposes.