It may come to a surprise for many that have been following the Coen Brothers films over the past few years that they had a film in 2009. Considering the widest it went was in fewer than 300 theaters, it’s not a real shocker that many didn’t know about it. I’d heard of the film, briefly, through some online review sites and entertainment publications, but the lack of big-name actors in the film no doubt contributed to the very small debut the film received. Despite this, the film received a number of glowing reviews from critics and the film itself went on to make $21 million worldwide. Not bad for a fairly unheard of production.
Loaded with originality and dark humor, A Serious Man is the new comedy from the brilliant minds of the Coen brothers, the Academy Award®-winning filmmakers responsible for The Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading. Praised as “Seriously awesome!” by Michael Hogan of Vanity Fair, this film imaginatively explores questions of faith, familial responsibility, delinquent behavior and mortality in one ordinary man’s quest to become a serious man. Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Adam Arkin, Aaron Wolff and Jessica McManus.
I absolutely love dark humor. It’s the main reason I enjoy the Coen Brothers works so much. So despite the fact I had no idea what this film was about I stepped in and eagerly awaited the darkness and inevitably confusing ending that awaited me. Well the ending was there but the darkness was more just depressing humor this time around. But that may have been more to do with the fact I wasn’t all that familiar with the subject matter this time around.
The film circled around Larry Gopnik, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, and his slowly unraveling life. He thought everything was going relatively smoothly until everything seemed to pile up on him at once. His wife wants a divorce so that she can marry another man, a student and his father are attempting to bribe him for a better grade for the class that he’s teaching, and his son and daughter seem to be simultaneously growing away from and bewildering him with their own life choices. It’s really not all that complicated of a plot, it’s just the way it’s presented that makes it stand out.
One of the ways it’s presented is that this entire story is wrapped up in religion. Gopnik attempts to seek advice from various rabbi’s and each one gives him different or seemingly nonsensical advice and nothing really seems to help him focus on anything. A series of events happen that change some of the circumstances that he’s in and…well, there was a whole lot more going on with this story, but I’m not even going to attempt to explain it. There are some scenes of lust and drug use on Larry’s part and it all just adds to his predicament on what he needs to do with his life for himself as well as his family.
But while this is a relatively normal set of circumstances, the Coen Brothers wrap it up with layers of religion and sprinkle in a fair bit of dark humor. Sadly the funniest bits often come from Larry’s dreams, so it’s not something that usually impacts the film itself in any way. It’s disorienting and mildly confusing but overall this film is a lot easier to follow than previous Coen Brother outings, so if you are looking for some of their work that’s not quite as mind bending as some of their past work, then this is a decent place to start…but only if you enjoyed the confusion you saw previously.
My problem with this film is I really enjoyed every other film of theirs that I’d seen, but this film was just slow. It was nearly two hours and moved, at times, at a snail’s pace. It was basically a film with about 30 minutes of actual plot progression, with the rest of it just sliding along leisurely. That was really my only problem with the film—it deviated or hung too long on one subject to the point where I wasn’t sure what the real purpose of it all was.
Of course then there was the ending which was vague…but at the same time it was a lot clearer than the first time I’d watched No Country for Old Men (that one still hurts my head to this day). In the end it’s a film that’s Recommended for previous Coen Brothers fans, but if you aren’t already there then you’ll likely find this film to be as frustrating as it is slow. There’s nothing really wrong with the film, but at the same time there’s nothing really all that impressive about it either. It’s definitely their most mature film to date, which may be why I didn’t find it as enjoyable as the past ones—I really enjoyed the mixture that they brought to their other works as they skated between the lines of immaturity and dark humor, but this one’s more just dark in terms of how they approached the seriousness of the material. That ending will definitely leave you wondering about the consequences of questionable actions that you take, although (hopefully) the resulting winds are not as severe to you as they were to Larry in this film.
Yeah I’m not sure that last paragraph above made sense. But who cares, we’re into the Blu-ray portion of this review now! The title arrives on Blu-ray in an absolutely immaculate presentation. The set itself is housed in a standard Elite Blu-ray case and the menu system is still the same U-Control type setup Universal’s been using for awhile, but the visual presentation definitely stands out with this one.
The film boasts an AVC encoded 1080p transfer and with the 1960s atmosphere, that means it a slightly washed out in appearance (until it gets into Larry’s neighbors house, and then it’s all blasted out 70’s tints), but despite the subdued nature of some of the coloring, the detail and clarity is really just impeccable. Textures are also great to lay your eyes on, from the hotel bedding to the clothing the characters wear, everything in this transfer looks just fantastic. I cannot imagine how this could possibly look any better than it does. While it’s definitely not a film you’d think would be one worthy of showing your new TV off with, the detail and image sharpness is just too good to not slather with praise.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is similarly good, although it’s not until the end that the sound mix even bothers to pick up. Some of the drug-induced or dream sequences spread across the channels and subwoofer a bit more, but for the most part the film is dialogue drive and spits out crystal clear audio from the front channels with ease. Overall a solid track that matches up with the pristine visual transfer.
Extras are sadly a bit limited, as they often are with Coen Brothers films. Included:
• BECOMING SERIOUS: Explore the creative vision behind A Serious Man and see why it’s the Coen brothers’ most personal film. (17 minutes, 1080p)
• CREATING 1967: Take a tour of the Minneapolis neighborhoods and set pieces used in the film. (14 minutes, 1080p)
• HEBREW AND YIDDISH FOR GOYS: Unravel the mysteries of the Hebrew and Yiddish language. (2 minutes, 1080p)
Unfortunately there are no major extras here. Both of the longer featurettes are worth checking out if you enjoyed the film (the 1967 piece is especially interesting—I took for granted just how time-period realistic the entire film was), and the Hebrew and Yiddish piece was very helpful…and probably something I’d recommend watching before the film if you’re unfamiliar with the dialogue as it gets thrown around quite frequently in the film (especially in the intro to the film, which is a 4×3 black and white intro…which really kind of throws you at first and I’m still not really sure what that has to do with the rest of the film).
Overall a release worth a Rental at least. As I said before this film will only be for Coen Brothers fans to really pick up, so you’ll probably want to test the waters with a simple rental first. The extras are so limited that it’s not really worth owning unless you really enjoy the film.
A Serious Man is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.