Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Serious Man

The Coens' "A Serious Man" is another very good film, another high mark in the oeuvre of the brothers. I'm not sure if it's a "No Country For Old Men" in their career, but it definitely continues their rich tradition of strong filmmaking. It's a chronicle of a professor, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), who's heading through a ton of problems, perhaps the most prominent of which being his wife (Sari Lennick) and how she wants to get a "ritual divorce" and live with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who's smooth voice seems to get him pretty much everything he wants (just look at his name). Another thing: he has a brother (Richard Kind) who is draining his syst and working on bizarre mathematical things and getting involved in gambling is living with him. At work, he's facing, among other things, a Korean student (David Kang) who desperately wants a grade change and will bribe for it. Also, his distinctly American "goy" neighbor is cutting his lawn.

On another level, his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is heading towards his bar mitzvah (let me tell you: that scene is handled very, very strangely) and facing his own trials, like paying someone back. All of this is interwoven in the best way possible, by the Coens and their friends, including cinematographer Roger Deakins, costume designer Mary Zophres, and art director and set decorators Deb Jansen and Nancy Haigh, respectively. As always, the brothers create a very good script with great characters, from the leads, to Adam Arkin's knowing lawyer, to the rabbis that Larry visits, and others. They also decide to branch out, adding a moralistic prologue in a much earlier timeframe than most of the film. For me and my friend, in a lot of ways it was really not like any of the other Coen films.

But then again, there's always that unsettling humor that they patented over the years that spikes the punch. They know how to really inflict you with something. This is an element that sometimes puts me off about their films, even though I think they are achievements. In "A Serious Man," this is slighter and has a smaller but still effective burn. And the performances. They're quite good. Stuhlbarg, Kind, and Melamed are all convincing in their respective roles, and the supporting cast, like Arkin and even Michael Lerner (in a very, very brief appearance), adds to the density of the film. So while I don't think "A Serious Man" is perfect, I do think that it is one of the best films of the year, one you should get to if you can for its blend of old and new for the Coens. Also since it's a really good film in a weaker year. Such delights as these are hard to come by. A-

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