Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, Alan Mandell, Adam Arkin, George Wyner, Amy Landecker
Written and Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Expectations: Moderately high. I love the Coen Bros, but they’ve burned me before.
Wow. I don’t know what to say. I honestly don’t feel qualified enough to form a complete response to this movie. I loved it. Absolutely one of the best films of 2009, but this is so not a film for everyone. The Coen Brothers generally make polarizing movies, but this is even in its own league within their filmography. It is probably their darkest and most personal comedy, and it instantly ranks with their best work for me. This also makes it a tough nut to crack. Immediately after watching I felt that I needed to see it again, and I would say that most would need a couple of viewings to really get their heads around it. If the ending to No Country for Old Men left you scratching your head, then you will want to assume that position once again. If you enjoy that sort of ambiguity as much as me though, then you are in for a treat.
A Serious Man tells the story of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), who just can’t seem to get anything going in his direction. His wife is leaving him for a widowed family friend. His kids have zero respect for him. He’s almost tenured in his teaching job, but now that is up in the air as well. Don’t worry, this is all towards the beginning, but viewing this film isn’t so much about the plot as it is about the atmosphere and connecting to the sad helplessness of Larry. The film takes place in the late 1960s and it feels like it. Period details and music abound and delight.
The Coen’s have acknowledged that this film is a retelling of the biblical tale of Job and I think they have done some marvelous work in the pseudo-adaptation. It is an absolute travesty that this did not win for Best Screenplay. Familiarity to the story of Job is not necessary to understand the film, but it helps. In a nutshell, it is a story of Job as God puts him through great hardships in a trial of faith. It’s a rather disturbing story, but in the end Job is rewarded for his faith and for never renouncing God. It is the ultimate “endure this suffering now, for great reward later” story. The difference in the Coen’s version is that for me, I don’t believe that Larry Gopnick will ever get that reward that Job’s story would suggest.
The acting is fantastic across the board. I had never seen Michael Stuhlbarg in anything before and I won’t be surprised when he starts popping up in lots of movies. He was excellent. The film is skillfully shot and edited as I have come to expect from the Coens. They are masters at the top of their art form and it is an absolute pleasure to watch. You do need a fairly offbeat, dark sense of humor to even see the comedy in this film, as it would play as a boring drama that makes little sense otherwise.
I look forward to watching this film many times in the future.