A new film from the brothers Coen is always much more than “just another film” but rather a cinematic event and has been ever since they made their mark with their brilliant Blood Simple back in 1984. Twenty-five years and 13 movies later, the Coens are still going strong and with A Serious Man they continue to prove just how good they are.
The duo have an uncanny knack for flip-flopping between serious films and lighter, perhaps more purely enjoyable fare. Among the latter are the infinitely rewatchable The Big Lebowski (my personal favourite), the zany Raising Arizona and Hudsucker Proxy, and last year’s star-studded Burn After Reading. While the more serious work is often harder to be described as “fun," it ultimately offers more rewarding things. These films include the likes of Fargo (still their best film), Barton Fink (one of their most underrated works), and the aforementioned Blood Simple.
A Serious Man definitely joins the serious camp and not just because of the name. Although the trademark witty dialogue and easy-on-the-eyes cinematography by Roger Deakins may suggest otherwise, this is a focused and often deadly serious film (not quite as serious as No Country for Old Men, but still) about the puzzling, often unanswerable nature of the questions of life, your worth amongst the people around you, and the utter confusion and pointlessness that most of us feel at some point.
After a strange five-minute opening sequence set years before the main body of the story (done completely in Yiddish), the film moves onto the character of Larry Gopnik, played perfectly by Michael Stuhlbarg. His life is becoming quite a mess, from his wife wanting a divorce and openly admitting she’s involved with another man (“Sy Ableman?!”) to someone mysteriously sending anonymous letters to try and stop him from getting tenure. Larry doesn’t know why this is happening to him – “I’ve tried to be a serious man,” he proclaims – or what to do about it, and at the suggestion of several people he decides to visit a rabbi (or three, as it inadvertently turns out).
This is one of those Coen brothers’ movies where the plot is rather minimal, and it’s more about the overall themes, as well as the specific stuff like character interaction and the nature of the characters themselves. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Coen brothers movie if it weren’t for the unique, extremely well-written dialogue delivered by the actors in a way that you know is exactly what the duo had in mind. They’re always completely involved in all of the major aspects of the film as they always write, produce, and direct them, and also edit them under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes. Their fingerprints are, as always, all over A Serious Man and it’s the reason why their movies are so special.
To go from such a light and easy-to-digest Burn After Reading last year – which didn’t do much in terms of awards (two Golden Globe nominations but no Oscars) – to almost the polar opposite with A Serious Man is quite an accomplishment. While they move easily from “silly” to “serious” from one film to the next, even within that there’s a crazy amount of diversity to be found within their body of work. One of the things which sets this one apart from most of their films, but particularly Burn After Reading, is the distinct lack of star power. The biggest name here would probably be Richard Kind, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find an average movie goer who could put that name to his more recognisable face (I always think of him as Larry David’s annoying cousin in HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm). But where the plethora of stars in Burn After Reading (Brad Pitt, George Clooney, John Malkovich etc.) worked in its favour, the opposite is true of A Serious Man. The lack of stars allows you to invest more in what’s going on in this particular story, one which takes a bit of work to really get into. Those who really enjoyed Burn After Reading and come to this expecting more of the same may be disappointed by the difference in tone, character interplay, and the distinct increase in the amount of concentration and attention it takes to “get it.”
What may irritate some viewers is the ending of the film. Much like the Coens' multi-Oscar winning No Country for Old Men from a couple of years back, A Serious Man has an ending which is unexpected, unusual, and peculiar – much like the film as a whole – that may leave some people wondering, “Is that it?” But even if that’s the initial reaction if you think about it for any length of time you’ll realize just how perfect the ending is, and how well it sums up the whole thing.
Even if you’re not a loyalist to the Coen brothers in that you like every single one of their movies without exception (I am one of those), and even if you don’t purely enjoy A Serious Man, the skilled filmmaking simply has to be admired. The Coens know what they want out of their films, and they make sure it gets from their script onto the screen exactly as intended. This is an extremely well made film, made with a love for the art of cinema and always with the duo’s unique blend of dark humour, wit, and intelligence. It’s not their absolute best outing, but it sits comfortably near the top. And with a body of work like theirs, that’s an impressive feat.