DVD Review: The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man, starring Michael Stuhlbarg and Fred Melamed


“No Jews we harmed in the making of this film.” — From the end credits

A Serious Man chronicles the misfortunes of Larry Gupnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) in a suburban Minnesota Jewish community in 1967. Larry's a respectable physics professor and family man whose wife suddenly decides to leave him for his university friend Sy Ableman (one of the greatest Coen Bros. creations, played by Fred Melamed); she wants a divorce and kicks him out of the house. As for his kids, his son does nothing but get stoned all day and his daughter is stealing money out of his wallet for a nose job. Then his unemployed brother begins having trouble with the law. At work, anonymous letters start showing up at the tenure committee denigrating his good name, and he appears to be both bribed and blackmailed by a student at the same time.

And that’s just the beginning. What has Larry done to deserve all this? He’s not a remarkable man, but he’s nowhere near a bad one, either. He searches for answers from various rabbis and gets nothing but more confusion. And therein lies the central mystery of A Serious Man: Why do bad things happen to good people? The Coens really have no answer for us, other than “shit happens,” “that’s life” and “accept the mystery.” There's no time to be contemplating God's plan, anyway; you just have to accept it and move on. To that end, the most profound statements made in the film are not by the rabbis, but in the lyrics of " target="_blank">a Jefferson Airplane song played thought the film:

When the truth is found to be lies

And all the joy within you dies

Don't you want somebody to love?

[image-2]I hope I'm not making this film seem depressing (which it kind of is). A Serious Man is also a side-splittingly funny movie with spot-on comic timing. Two scenes in particular — the stoned bar mitzvah sequence and a rabbi’s story about a man with a "message" engraved on the back of his teeth — are among the funniest things the Coens have ever written.

Casting is also crucial, and the filmmakers nailed it. There is not one star in this movie (apart from a couple recognizable character actors), and I wish filmmakers would use fresh faces like this more often. It feels like the roles were tailor made for these actors. with Michael Stuhlbarg hopefully getting more work after this. He wisely doesn’t play Larry as sad-sack loser, but just a good man who can't believe what’s happening to him. But it's Fred Melamed as Sy Ableman who, with very little screen time, steals the movie (on a par with Christoph Waltz in Basterds for the year’s best performance). Ableman is responsible for Larry’s divorce and has him kicked out of his own house, yet at the same time has the gall to be his chief consoler.

Technically this film is masterful — the editing is swift and on the nose, the pacing assured, and the film is daring in every turn (including a prologue spoken entirely in Yiddish). The tone of A Serious Man is strangely reminiscent of Charlie Kaufman’s opus Synecdoche, New York, in the same way you feel like you're sucked into the main characters consciousness. It's thrilling just as a piece sound and design.

A Serious Man is a must see for any film buff, and the Coen’s best work since Fargo.

Note: Special features include a couple of mildly intriguing making-of featurettes and a hilarious tutorial on the Jewish vernacular used in the film. The image and sound quality on the DVD are first rate.

It seems as if the Coen Brothers are in the mist of a career renaissance. In the past three years they directed Best Picture winner No Country For Old Men and the star-studded farce Burn after Reading — the two biggest money makers of their career. With A Serious Man, now out on DVD and Blu-ray, they have made what could be the most unusual and defiantly non-commercial film of their careers.

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