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A Serious Man - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews — LiveJournal
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cinema_holic
A Serious Man
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Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B-



There are many unique things about the latest movie by oddballs Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man, not the least of which is its total lack of big stars. Its main character, Larry Gopnik, is played-- very well -- by Michael Stuhlbarg, in what appears to be his first starring role (imdb.com lists 18 acting credits since 1998, half of them single-episode TV spots). It may be slightly easier to recognize Richard Kind as Larry's brother, and even he is likely most easily recognized as the voice of Molt in 1998's A Bug's Life.

In a way, this relative star anonymity is good for A Serious Man, as the Coen Brothers make films so distinctive, ultimately it's only their name that matters. Indeed, O Brother, Where Art Thou? was far less a George Clooney movie than it wa was a Coen Brothers movie; even No Country for Old Men, which made a star of Javier Bardem, was a Coen Brothers first and foremost. A Serious Man is no exception.

The way A Serious Man differs from previous Coen Bothers films is that it's not as immediately easy to decide how you feel about it. Its pacing is just slightly faster than glacial, so it can't really be recommended to those who prefer MTV-style, rapid-fire editing. Nor can it be recommended to those who take to riveting drama, none of which can be found here either.

At present, the best word I can describe for the way this film plays out is meditative. Curiously, it's still just odd enough that it never gets boring. One does wonder if the film might have greater meaning to Jewish audiences, as there is no doubt the Coen Brothers have never focused so much before on the Jewish experience -- Larry Gopnik is the head of a Jewish family, whose life is falling apart. His wife has fallen in love with an old family acquaintance and wants a divorce. His son is much more interested in marijuana and his portable radio than in Hebrew school. His brother won't move out and monopolizes the bathroom. His colleagues are getting letters urging the tenure committee at the university where he works not to grant him tenure. A South Korean student is trying to bribe him into giving him a passing grade. And none of the rabbis he keeps reluctantly going to for words of wisdom are of any help in all of this.

That's a lot going on for a movie that moves so slowly (and is only 105 minutes), but it's also a trademark of the Coens. And none of these characters are particularly likable -- not the least of which is Larry himself, who is frustratingly unassertive. You spend a lot of time wishing he'd grow some balls, yet mildly amused at the baffled way he reacts to people walking all over him.

The value of A Serious Man, then, is perhaps in its execution. The characters are as far from stock as you can get, and thus become intriguing, particularly with how believable they are, thanks to solid performances across the board. There's an introductory scene, before the main titles, that tells the story of a long-ago married Russian couple who can't agree on whether the man visiting them is the ghost of a friend three years dead. Again, the actions are subtle, yet command attention. A single shift of the eyes can convey more here than entire performances in other films. Then, exactly how this prologue relates to the rest of the movie is up for the viewer to decide.

A Serious Man is odd to the very end: just when you think there might be some genuine, on-screen excitement (thanks to a couple seconds of an approaching tornado), the credits roll. But that's what A Serious Man does -- constantly allude to potential storms, without actually showing them. Larry Gopnik is perpetually poised either to explode or to implode, and we never get to see which it is.

It's kind of hard to tell exactly Joel and Ethan Coen's vision is here, although there is always the sense that, whatever that vision is, it's uncompromised. I guess there's always that.

Michael Stuhlbarg tries to be 'A Serious Man'.


Overall: B
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