There are some movies that are so expertly written, acted, and directed that you can't help but forgive most of their faults. With A Serious Man, Joel and Ethan Coen have made a film that is full of faults, but the skill with which the film is made is so glaring and obvious that most of its missteps are easily tolerable. This is a film that is jam packed with so many emotions that it completely overwhelms the audience. Confusion, depression, bewilderment, laughter, you name it. The Coens have packed so much into this film that we get a sense it is one they have been thinking about for quite some time.

After an intriguing prologue, which in itself is one of the year's best opening scenes, we are thrust in a 1967 Minnesota suburb, not terribly unlike the neighborhood the Coens themselves grew up in. The main character is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor so intrigued by his teaching equations of certainty and inevitability that he can't possibly foreshadow the disaster that awaits him. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for a long-time family friend named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). His son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is a pot-smoking, radio-listening train wreck who is on the run from the school bully. Moreover, things are so bad in Larry's household that his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) is forced to go to a friend's house to wash her hair because her Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind) is in the bathroom all day. On top of all that, a disgruntled South Korean student named Clive (David Kang) is trying to bribe Larry for a passing grade. 

There is so much wrong in Larry's life, yet he does his best to retain his optimistic outlook of the future. This is what makes Stuhlbarg's performance so compelling. He plays a character that a lot of people strive to be when they grow up. He has a wife, two kids, a solid job, and he tries his absolute best to be a good person. When things go from bad to worse, he doesn't flip out and lose his temper, but rather he does is best to stay cool, calm, and collected.

Outside of Stuhlbarg’s remarkable turn, which is more than worthy of Oscar discussion, the film features solid performances across. However, I was very surprised at how underdeveloped some of the supporting characters were, most notably the roles played by Fred Melamed and Richard Kind. They give solid performances, and Melamed’s deep, soothing, almost creepy voice is enough to make you laugh even before you see the character in person, but as a whole, his character, along with Kind’s, just didn’t have much substance to them. 

I could handle the inferiority of the supporting characters because this film is truly a study of only one man. However,
the most controversial thing about this movie is the shockingly abrupt ending. I will not discuss the specifics of it in this review, but it is a baffling ending that takes a while to actually sink in. In some ways, it is a tremendous disappointment, but when looked at in a different light, it can be seen as the defining moment of the film. 

Throughout the course of the movie, the Coens set up so much conflict that we as the audience are dying to get to the payoff. Well, this film doesn't have much of a payoff and it seems that the brothers might have cheated the audience a little bit. They create so much humor and entertainment by the stories they develop, but none of them really have any conclusions. Almost all films are built on an introduction and a payoff, but this film leaves so much up in the air that it makes your head spin.

On the flip side, when you look at the ending in terms of staying consistent with the film's themes, it is right on. The movie is filled with uncertainty, and for good reason. The opening prologue introduces some spine-tingling suspense only to leave the audience without an answer. One of Larry's rabbis tells him a story of a dentist who discovers Hebrew writing engraved in a patient's teeth. When we get to the end of the story, not only are we left without a conclusion, but Larry struggles immensely to find how that story is even relevant to his own problems, and the ending doesn’t stray at all from the topic of uncontrollability.

In many ways, the Coen brothers are playing with the audience as much as they are playing with Larry, and that is what makes this experience so fascinating. Rarely does a film have the power to keep you thinking about it long after the credits roll, but this is certainly one of those movies. It's certainly not without its faults, but in terms of creating a sharp, funny, personal, and challenging film, I believe the Coen brothers have accomplished everything they set out to do with this film, and put forth one of their best works ever in the process.


Candice Frederick said...

hmmm..I've heard a lot of good things about this movie. The Coens are usually on point but I wasn't sold on this ovie quite yet. thanks for the review.

Danny King said...

@ Candice: It's definitely a tough film to get your head around, but it was easy for me to appreciate the complexity to it.

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