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A Serious Man DVD Review

A Serious Man (2009) movie poster A Serious Man

Theatrical Release: October 2, 2009 / Running Time: 105 Minutes / Rating: R

Writers/Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg (Larry Gopnik), Richard Kind (Uncle Arthur Gopnik), Fred Melamed (Sy Ableman), Sari Lennick (Judith Gopnik), Adam Arkin (Divorce Lawyer Don Milgram), Amy Landecker (Mrs. Samsky), Alan Mandell (Rabbi Marshak), Fyvush Finkel (Dybbuk?), Allen Lewis Rickman (Shtetl Husband), Yelena Shmulenson (Shtetl Wife), Simon Helberg (Rabbi Scott), Katherine Borowitz (Friend at the Picnic), Stephen Park (Clive's Father), Peter Breitmayer (Mr. Brandt), Aaron Wolff (Danny Gopnik), Jessica McManus (Sarah Gopnik), Ari Hoptman (Arlen Finkle), David Kang (Clive Park), George Wyner (Rabbi Nachtner), Benjamin Portnoe (Danny's Reefer Buddy), Jon Kaminski, Jr. (Mike Fagle), Michael Tezla (Dr. Sussman), Raye Birk (Dr. Shapiro), Michael Lerner (Solomon Schlutz)

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Joel and Ethan Coen made arguably the definitive Minnesota film in Oscar-winning 1996 crime caper Fargo. (Never mind that the titular city is in North Dakota; it hardly featured anyway.)
Thirteen years and many awards later, the brothers returned to a much different Minnesota. A Serious Man is set in the late-1960s in a predominantly Jewish community of a Minneapolis suburb. The Coens themselves grew up in St. Louis Park, which fits that description and in fact was used as a filming location.

The film opens in olden times with a subtitled, pillarboxed prologue about a married couple visited by an old rabbi who may or may not be a "dybbuk" (for you Gentiles, that's an evil spirit living in a body of the deceased). I've twice tried to make sense of this invented folk tale and connect it to what follows, but there is no clear relation. Besides being the first of the Coens' many fascinating flourishes here, this interpretable 8-minute sequence sets a model for the potentially ominous to enter the lives of well-meaning Jewish faithful.

"A Serious Man" is a title that physics professor protagonist Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) aspires to as his life is turned upside-down in the Coen Brothers' latest film. The film also gives us the Torah-rehearsing, pot-smoking, radio-listening adventures of Larry's son (Aaron Wolff, center), seen here on the school bus with his swear-happy friends. Elder Coen brother Joel would have been bar mitzvah age in 1967.

That predicament faces Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a college physics professor. From what we see, Larry's life appears to revolve around his work, where he is soon to be considered for tenure. "Like a lightning bolt out of the blue", Larry's wife Judith (Sari Lennick) announces that she is prepared to divorce Larry and wed widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). So that they can be remarried in the faith, Judith specifies that the divorce will have to be a ritual "get." In any event, Larry is to seek out the counsel of wise rabbis.

The impending divorce is just one of several complications Larry faces. His ne'er-do-well brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is an indefinite houseguest who keeps the family's one bathroom occupied with his cyst-draining. This naturally upsets Larry's teenaged daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus), who spends most of her time out with friends and preparing for it. The Gopniks' younger son Danny (Aaron Wolff) has his own concerns, high among them the aerial antenna's reception on "F Troop." When he's not smoking pot and swearing with his buddies, he's practicing the Torah benediction for his forthcoming bar mitzvah.

Doing his part to keep the family fragmented, Larry also worries about a hostile neighbor, a disgruntled Korean student evidently trying to buy a passing grade, and a membership in the Columbia Record Club he knows nothing about.

Larry's houseguest brother Arthur (Richard Kind) keeps himself busy by tending to his neck cyst and working on the Mentaculus, an elaborate mathematical probability equation meant to make sense of the world. Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), the man that plans to marry Larry's soon-to-be ex-wife, places a high value on a good firm hug.

Many have drawn parallels between Larry's plight and that of Job in the Bible book of the same name. Without a doubt, there is merit to noticing that, particularly in a film so steeped in religious culture. But you needn't appreciate the theological implications to simply enjoy this strange yet poignant tale.

A Serious Man is a movie that underscores how the Golden Globes' distinction between a Drama and a Comedy is not always a clear one. The film's one nomination, for Stuhlbarg's leading performance, placed it in the Comedy/Musical category. And it is a comedy, although placing it alongside drunken revelry, broad farces, and even quirky offbeat indie types seems to sell it short. In their twenty-five years as filmmakers, the Coens have always managed to have a sense of humor in their storytelling, whether it's buried deep in crime suspense (as in No Country for Old Men and debut Blood Simple) or easily found at the surface (Burn After Reading, The Big Lebowski). In A Serious Man, the comedy is impossible to miss, but like everything about the film, it is understated. The viewer is not laughing at Larry's misfortunes but in the painfully odd interactions that present them.

What truly reveal the film's sharp wit are the characterizations. There isn't a character given more than a moment's screentime here who fails to make a lasting, realistic impression. Uncle Arthur isn't seen until about a quarter of the way in, but we already know him and understand him by the time Richard Kind shows his face. The film's brightest spot comedically is Sy Ableman, who is hilariously deliberate in his efforts to keep Larry calm yet submissive. Afforded generous pacing and editing, even smaller parts manage to hit upon marks, such as Larry's roundabout superior (Ari Hoptman), relaxed pot-smoking neighbor (Amy Landecker), sympathetic but professional divorce lawyer (Adam Arkin), and highly divergent rabbis. Meanwhile, Stuhlbarg grounds the whole thing with his contained indignation.

Often-alone neighbor Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker) serves Larry iced tea and marijuana with a side of conversation. Although the Coen brothers confess the Yiddish folk tale prologue that opens their film bears no direct relation to what follows it (comparing it to a pre-feature cartoon), that won't stop viewers like myself from trying to find meaning otherwise.

The Yiddish prologue isn't the only bit seemingly designed to confuse and disarm viewers. The Coens dial up the style on Rabbi #2's anecdote about a dentist struck by a discovery he makes on the inside of a "goy's" lower teeth. Edited in rhythm to Jimi Hendrix's "Machine Gun", the story grows more and more gripping before amusingly going nowhere.
Scenes like that, one depicting parallel car drives, and a number of startling dream fakeouts allow the directors to be imaginative and artistic without necessarily having a purpose beyond adding to the curious confusions.

Some viewers may be frustrated or puzzled by such diversions and the film's determinedly unresolved end. But I've certainly come to appreciate how the brothers are able to fuel and enhance their stories with such creative touches of oddness. They're an acquired taste, to be sure, but the more safe, conventional cinema you see, the easier it is to admire the bold quirks and chances taken.

Both sides of that observation are supported by A Serious Man's reception. The film's limited fall release didn't turn up on many moviegoers' radars, especially in the large part of the nation that sits between New York and Los Angeles. A film this personal, intimate, slow, Jewish, and full of unknowns was never going to play to wide audiences. The movie's $9.2 million domestic gross from 262 theaters was almost identical to the performance put up by The Man Who Wasn't There, the duo's last really small film released eight years earlier. That number wasn't music to Focus Features' ears, as studios' indie arms have come under scrutiny and parent company Universal suffered an especially lousy year.

But the film is guaranteed to do good business on DVD and Blu-ray, where it arrives today just one week after receiving Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. The somewhat unexpected Best Picture nod, the Coens' third after Fargo and winner No Country, suggests that the siblings could become fixtures in that category with the field expanded to ten nominees. That their next film, a remake of John Wayne's True Grit, is scheduled to open Christmas Day 2010 can only help.

Buy A Serious Man on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, Spanish, French)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish, French;
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: February 9, 2010
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.98
Black Keepcase
Also available on Blu-ray Disc

VIDEO and AUDIO

Beyond the 1.33:1-pillarboxed prologue, A Serious Man appears in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen on DVD. It looks terrific. Once again, the Coens have enlisted their go-to cinematographer Roger Deakins and the potent images he composes do not disappoint. The picture is clean, sharp, and without any noticeable shortcomings. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack also stands up well. This fairly quiet film benefits from Carter Burwell's intriguing score, which is nicely presented. A few bursts in dynamics arise in the memorable and repeated sampling of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love."

As usual, Ethan and Joel Coen are uncomfortable yet wry getting interviewed in "Becoming Serious." The B'Nai Emet Synagogue in the Coens' hometown of St. Louis Park is one of the Minnesota locations the production utilized in "Creating 1967." "Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys" explains just what Larry's wife (Sari Lennick) means when she says "agunah."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Typical for both a Coen brothers film and a Universal DVD, A Serious Man is joined only by some routine featurettes.

"Becoming Serious" is a good 17-minute making-of piece.
The Coens explain the origins of the film and their intentions, while cast members sound off on the characters and the meaning of it all. There are interesting perspectives shared here.

"Creating 1967" (13:40) goes into detail on the period recreation, specifically the production design. We hear about the Minnesota filming locations, the made-over neighborhood, a set created for a movie within the movie, and leased vintage cars. I find this topic always interesting and this detailed tour is especially well done.

Last up is "Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys" (2:15), which places definitions of foreign terms over clips from the film that use them. It is informative and presented in a fun manner.

The DVD loads with ads for Pirate Radio, Greenberg, The Big Lebowski: 10th Anniversary Edition, Blu-ray, Couples Retreat, and Smokin' Aces 2.

The static menus employ colorful screen-filling images and Burwell's somewhat out of place opening credits score. There are no inserts inside the standard black keepcase.

Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) receives a troublingly trivial phone call while his divorce lawyer (Adam Arkin) is on the clock. Larry surveys his small midwestern suburban town from the roof, where he adjusts the aerial antenna to improve the family's TV reception. Being utilized for the film's poster, cover, and DVD menu elevates this scene to iconic status.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Like most of Joel and Ethan Coen's movies, A Serious Man will no doubt draw mixed reactions from viewers, with its industry recognition confusing certain members of the general public whose heightened expectations aren't met. Technically proficient, consistently engaging and often quite funny, it is one of the more memorable and enjoyable of the 2009 films I've seen. I can't guarantee you'll feel the same way and I think the directors' works tend to be easier to appreciate without awards and rave reviews building them up.

That said, I definitely recommend you giving this one a chance. Those already determined to own it should be satisfied by Universal's DVD. Its feature presentation is great, the extras are solid, and the absences (commentary, deleted scenes) are expected.

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Related Interview: Michael Stuhlbarg, star of A Serious Man
Read our interview with Golden Globe-nominated "A Serious Man" star Michael Stuhlbarg.

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Reviewed February 9, 2010.



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