A Serious Man is the story of an ordinary man’s search for clarity in a universe where Jefferson Airplane is on the radio and F-Troop is on TV. It is 1967, and Larry Gopnik (Tony Award nominee Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a quiet Midwestern university, has just been informed by his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) that she is leaving him. She has fallen in love with one of his more pompous acquaintances, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who seems to her a more substantial person than the feckless Larry. Larry’s unemployable brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is sleeping on the couch, his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is a discipline problem and a shirker at Hebrew school, and his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) is filching money from his wallet in order to save up for a nose job.
While his wife and Sy Ableman blithely make new domestic arrangements, and his brother becomes more and more of a burden, an anonymous hostile letter-writer is trying to sabotage Larry’s chances for tenure at the university. Also, a graduate student seems to be trying to bribe him for a passing grade while at the same time threatening to sue him for defamation. Plus, the beautiful woman next door torments him by sunbathing nude. Struggling for equilibrium, Larry seeks advice from three different rabbis. Can anyone help him cope with his afflictions and become a righteous person – a mensch – a serious man?
Some people may call it an epiphany, while others may call it enlightenment. Whatever the term used, this reviewer experienced a sudden intuitive perception of what life is all about, after watching this film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. And it suddenly dawned upon him that life may be nothing but a manifestation of a well written script, by the talented Coen Brothers, no less. Not only has this essential insight into reality woken him up from his (almost) 30 years of stupor, he is also making a point to recommend this thoughtful film to all readers who are either visiting this page see what this fatigued columnist has to say, or have stumbled across this review by sheer accident.
It isn’t the easiest task to pin down what this film is about. In short, it is a story of how a suburban Jewish academic is struggling with the many problems in his life. There is the wife who is asking for divorce. There is the Asian student who is trying to bribe him into giving the underperforming kid a better grade. There is also a car accident which he had gotten into. And not forgetting a neighbour who has trespassed into his lawn. Oh, he also has problematic children, an unemployed brother and a neighbour who is too seductive to resist. Amidst all these, viewers can expect an almost incomprehensible prologue involving a Yiddish folk tale.
“What the heck just happened?” may be the first reaction the end credits begin to roll. This reviewer won’t give away too much here regarding the wonderfully depressing ending of the movie. But he has this to say: How on earth did the Coen Brothers get robbed of the Best Original Screenplay at this year’s Academy Awards?
True, this 106 minute movie may not be the most mainstream production you have seen in a while, but when a tale of such rich substance and depth strikes you, how can you not be awed by the complexities of human nature and ultimately, life? There are plenty of symbolisms, religious references and culture specific representations. And this is also what makes this film work – you want to ponder and think about what the filmmakers are trying to say, and have your own take on it.
It is clear that the Coen Brothers had a gleefully fun time concocting this story, judging by the potentially high number of mind boggling reactions they will get from the mass audiences. They also know well that a black comedy with such reflectively philosophical themes do not require Hollywood heavyweights to carry the show. So what we get are relatively unfamiliar faces like Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind and Fred Melamed who bring this brilliantly superb screenplay to life.
Thanks to the Coen Brothers, this reviewer is seeing life from a perspective he has never realised before. He finds connection in songs like Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” from the film’s soundtrack. He understands what it means when the protagonist desperately approaches different rabbis for help. He also ponders about why certain things happen in certain ways in his microscopic life.
And does that make him a serious man? Maybe, just maybe, at the end of it all, it doesn’t really matter.
SPECIAL FEATURES :
Nil - What a shame that we don’t get to hear from the talented Coen Brothers at all.
We do not have any complaints about visual transfer of the movie. It is presented in English Dolby Digital 2.0.
by John Li
Posted on 4 July 2010