Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

Another Masterstroke From The Coens

Review by Matthew Starr

The Coens have created yet another brilliant film. A Serious Man was screened this week as the opening night film of the new Friars Club Film Festival. The Coens were in attendance to introduce the film as were most of the cast members.

The film begins with a somewhat ambiguous but interesting prologue in which a husband and wife invite a man into their home. The wife believes this man is dead and that he is cursed. The husband is relying on logic and figures such a possibility is absurd. Even after the wife stabs the man in the chest there is still room for discussion.

It’s hard to make what this opening act means as it’s not tied in to the narrative of the film although I certainly got a better idea after it was all over. The serious man is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is a professor living with his wife, kids and brother in Minnesota circa 1967. The family is Jewish and like most Jewish American families only practice some of the rules of the faith and only understand some of the terms.

His son goes to Hebrew school where he listens to Jefferson Airplane as the teacher gives the lesson. His daughter has no time for Hebrew school. She is too busy washing her hair. Larry’s brother Arthur, portrayed by the always underrated Richard Kind, is not working and is dealing with an obtrusive cyst on the back of his neck. This is basically the life of Larry Gopnik until it all begins to fall apart.

I have not seen all the films by the Coen brothers but from what I have seen this is probably their most personal film to date as it focuses on the Jewish faith, specifically the Jewish faith in Minnesota where the Coens were born and raised. Personally there were so many scenes and quotes that amused me as a Jewish American. All the scenes involving Hebrew school and his son Danny’s Bar Mitzvah were highly amusing.

A Serious Man is full of comedic moments and dialog that competes with their most humerous moments in The Big Lebowski or O Brother Where Art Thou. However the film does have a “serious” theme and message depending on how you want to look at it. I always find it pretty funny how a lot of  people only resort to God when their life begins to turn sour. When Larry’s world begins to crumble he looks for help everywhere. He tries his family, his friends, his neighbors, his lawyers, doctors, Rabbis and eventually the lord himself.

No one can help him. The rabbi’s give him advice that does not lead anywhere. A junior rabbi tries to explain to him that life is about perception. To the junior rabbi and Larry the parking lot outside is of no concern. However to someone with a fresh mind who has never seen a parking lot before it can be a wonderful sight. “Just look at that parking lot”.

Perception is brought up again in a great scene where Arthur is upset that Hashem has given him nothing in life. Hashem is Hebrew for “the name” and is used in the faith to refer to God. Arthur is dejected and is yelling aloud that Hashem has given Larry a good life but not himself. Even in the middle of all of Larry’s turmoil his brother still perceives him as being a lucky man. Larry says to himself “Sometimes you have to help yourself”. He does not follow his own advice.

Larry claims numerous times throughout the film that he “didn’t do anything”. This seems to be his problem. He never really does anything wrong in the film and he is always reasonable. Life has simply taken advantage of him because he has not done anything to stop it. When things go wrong we really can’t rely on other people and especially not on “Hashem”, not in the Coen brother’s world. We also should not look for answers because we are not going to get any. People who watch this movie will look for answers in the opening scene as well as the ending and they will not get those answers.

A Serious Man is on par with the best work of these great directors (Fargo, No Country for Old Men). Michael Stuhlbargs lead performance is brilliant and the rest of the cast is equally as effective. The Coens are really perfectionists when it comes to acting. I don’t think I have ever seen an out of place or bad performance in any of their films. The film is also technically excellent with commendable work from cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Carter Burwell.

Definitely the best of the year at this point and a marvelous final shot to boot. Mazel Tov.


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