Tuesday, December 22, 2009
A SERIOUS MAN / ****
Distributor: Focus Features
Release Date: October 2, 2009
Running Time: 105 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Joel and Ethan Coen have never been the kind of guys to make films that one might expect. After the brilliant noir of their debut film “Blood Simple,” they made the goofy comedy “Raising Arizona.” They’ve made serious dramas like “Miller’s Crossing,” “Fargo,” and the Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men.” They’ve gone back to goofy with “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “The Big Lebowski,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” and “Burn After Reading.” They’ve gone way off the beaten path with “Barton Fink,” dabbled with black and white in “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” done a romantic comedy with “Intolerable Cruelty,” and even gone the remake route with “The Ladykillers” (and will soon go there again with “True Grit”). In the process they have become my favorite filmmakers of all time.
Their latest film, “A Serious Man,” feels like a gift to their fans. It’s just about the most “Coen Brothers” movie the brothers have ever made. To tell this “serious” tale, the brothers go back to their 1960s Minnesota roots. It feels like a deeply personal film, and when Richard Kind is the biggest name in the cast you know they’re not making a film for mainstream consumption.
The title character is played with astonishing honesty by Michael Stuhlbarg. He plays Larry Gopnik, a man with so many problems he makes the book of Job look like a walk in the park. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for the supremely annoying Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed); his son Danny (Aaron Wolf), who’s Bar Mitzvah is approaching, is stealing money for marijuana; and no matter how many Rabbis he goes to for help he can’t get a straight answer.
Stuhlbarg’s performance is nothing short of astonishing, and by all rights this should land him more juicy roles. It’s the kind of career defining role that Frances McDormand had in “Fargo.” He’s sympathetic and funny, but never appears to be trying that hard at either. His one-way phone conversation with a representative of the Columbia House Record Company is the funniest scene of the year.
It may not appeal to mass audiences, but for anyone who has followed or loved the Coen Brothers, this film is a beautiful reward. This is one of the best films of the year.