Two years ago, their movie won Best Picture. Last year, their follow-up starred Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton and John Malkovich. This year, the Coen brothers' latest film - A Serious Man - stars no big-name movies whatsoever. It's also one of their funniest films yet.
A Serious Man, about a man who no one quite takes seriously, begins in 19th century Russia as a dead man arrives at a couple's home to chit chat and subsequently get stabbed in the chest. Flash forward a hundred years to an unrelated set of characters in 1967 Minnesota and we're introduced to Larry Gopnik, a soft-spoken physics professor who lives in a loveless marriage with thankless children, a mentally challenged brother and a complete lack of purpose. Strained for cash, tempted by a bribe and realizing that his wife is leaving him for another man, Larry begins to question his Jewish faith and seeks out guidance from the various rabbis in his community.
As with all films by the Coen brothers, some people will hate A Serious Man. Just looking at the IMDB message boards reveals that there are several haters who question what the point of the movie is (hell, I'm not even sure), argue that it doesn't have a plot (it does, but barely) and so on and so forth. Of course, there are others, like me, who will say that the Coen brothers have pulled it off once again, delivering a finely tuned comedy that has very little plot or purpose but excels nonetheless.
And since I'm writing this review, my opinion is clearly right. The Coen brothers have a knack for odd comedy, and A Serious Man is yet another example. It is consistently funny and strange, almost normal but just slightly off as if the world they live in isn't real, but it is. The characters range from strange to stupid, and yet all of them could exist in real life. The story arc is also unbelievable, and yet entirely believable. The movie, as a whole, is much more grounded than many of the Coen's other comedies, and yet it is just as off-the-wall. It's notably different from Burn After Reading in tone and style, but it's quintessential Coen brothers. And I just spent a whole paragraph going in circles.
To be frank, the movie is funny. Laugh-out-loud funny, though if you were to think back to that one specific scene that really stood out to you, you'd be hard-pressed to think of it. Some people are going to sit squeamishly through the film like some people always do at Coen brothers movies, but those people can't be saved. Satan is waiting for them. Enjoy the movie for what it is: an offbeat, goofy drama-comedy about funny Jewish people.
Michael Stuhlbarg (who?) is great in the lead role, playing a pushover of a father and husband who is the film's reluctant protagonist. He just wants things to go back to normal, or he doesn't know what he wants, but he does know that how things are just aren't kosher. Stuhlbarg, despite being surrounded by an excellent, pitch-perfect supporting cast (you'll recognize many of them, but I dare you to name any individual actor), carries every scene.
But ultimately it comes down to story and screenplay, and the Coen brothers carry A Serious Man far. It's random, it's weird, it's whacky, and yet unlike in Burn After Reading, it's much easier to relate to the characters and get swept up in the story. Whereas Reading was abrasive, A Serious Man is fluid, and for that it is a step above many of the other Coen brother comedies. It may not be their best, but it comes close - and without the typical menagerie of stars. They just keeping getting better and better, which is amazing considering their already impressive resume.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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