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A Serious Man

February 7, 2010

A Serious Man hasn’t received much recognition or media hype considering it’s the 2nd follow up to the beloved Coen Brothers Oscar winning No Country For Old Men three years ago. I heard small chatter about it when it came to theaters and then stumbled on its glowing reviews a few months ago. After seeing it, I was furious at its Golden Globe snub considering A Serious Man was one of the best films of 2009. Thankfully the Academy picked up its slack and nominated the film for Best Picture and Original Screenplay for this years Oscars. By the end of A Serious Man my reaction was the same as it had been 3 years prior with No Country, I was left speechless but extremely pleased and impressed that the Coen’s continue to make engagingly fresh films.

A Serious Man opens to a short film set in the 19th century where a man and wife discuss the strange zombie-like state of a friend, Reb Groshkrover who helped the husband earlier in the day despite the fact that he is already dead. The wife stabs Reb to prove a point but he walks away seemingly distorted and seemingly unharmed. A black out ends the story but starts the blaring sounds of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and a slow zoom-out captures the sound waves of the song in the headphones of 13-year-old Danny Gopnick. The setting is now in a 1967 classroom where Danny sits in his Yiddish class secretly listening to his radio and preparing to transport $20 for a dub sack of weed to a classmate. What does the epilogue have to do with the film? You tell me, I didn’t even know it was part of the film until I looked it up. Danny, who spends his time listening to music, smoking pot with his friends in the school bathroom, and preparing himself for his Bar-Mitzvah, is the son of high school teacher Larry Gopnik. Together their separate stories of their immediate family and the problems they face become the momentum of the film.

The story’s fairly simple. Problems arise, characters are introduces, consequences proceed, and life goes on. And it’s an hour and a half of some of the best storytelling I’ve ever seen captured on screen. Larry’s problems parallel with that of the Bible’s Job, a kindhearted, loving, and God-fearing man who becomes the butt of a bet between God and Satan. Basically God allows Satan to torture Job in a bet that Job won’t dismiss him as Lord. Like Job, Larry is a kindhearted honest man struggling in his mounting problems of his fading marriage, ethical problems at work, a wavering promotion, and financial burdens all the while attempting to keep his faith and understand why the Lord is allowing him to suffer in such a way.

Most films would hint at a justification of a character’s suffering through his personal flaws of laziness or ignorance. However Michael Stuhlbarg plays his character as serious as possible and we see that Larry is overall a good, faithful and hopeful man who just wants to be taken seriously. His only problem is that he’s alive and life sucks at times and there’s just nothing we can do about it.

The Coen’s style of directing alone makes the movie darkly hilarious and visually stunning. Many of the films funniest moments happen not just from conversation but because of lingering shots, inconsistent fades, and light filters that emulate the hazy mindset and eye sight that marijuana causes. In one scene a stoned Danny’s insight is brought to life as the camera fluidly cuts between tilted close ups of his dazed face and red puffy eyes while using contrasting depth of field to blur parts of the room so the viewer can focus through Danny’s bloodshot eyes. The entire film is done in a way that makes the audience feel like a fly on the wall in the lives of the Gopnicks and the set design and costumes realistically and naturally captures 1960s suburbia.

There’s no one thing this film is about, A Serious Man is a whole multitude of problems, conflicts, and humor that ends with a shocking revelation and stunning final shot. A Serious Man literally left me speechless afterwards. I debated what could I say about it to my friends but couldn’t think of anything except “wow.” It’s one of those movies that just sticks with you, if not for the imagery then the story. It keeps my respect for the Coen Brothers flying high and once again I will be rooting for them at this years Oscars. A Serious Man is the type of film that based on your reaction once its over gives insight to the type of person you are whether it be existential, optimistic, pessimistic, or empathetic.


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