A Coen Brothers Tragicomedy About a Jewish Man's Spiritual Crisis
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man (2009) is laugh-out-loud-funny at times, yet the worldview embodied by the film is bleak. For some viewers, the edgy humor will be too unsettling, but for many others, it will be cathartic. However, there can be no argument that the movie is thoughtful and humanistic.
A Serious Man takes place in 1967 in the tight-knit Jewish community of an unnamed Midwestern city. The protagonist, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg in a fine performance), is a memorable character. A physics professor, Larry lives in a suburban tract house with his wife and their two teenage children. His brother (Richard Kind) is sleeping on their couch and gives no indication he will ever leave. Preoccupied with day-to-day minutiae, such as dealing with a disgruntled student and fiddling with the rooftop TV antenna so his son can watch F Troop, Larry is caught off guard when his wife tells him she wants a divorce because she has fallen for his colleague Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Soon Larry finds himself facing a whole series of trials and tribulations.
The barebones story here is banal, but the Coen brothers fill it with details that turn it into a fascinating existential tragicomedy. The film opens with a seven-minute Yiddish-language prologue where one character seems to be a dybbuk. Later, a rabbi tells Larry a hilarious — but disturbing — tale about an orthodontist finding writing on a patient's teeth. Another rabbi makes Jefferson Airplane lyrics sound like words from a sacred text. Despite the movie's big laughs, the ending is depressing.
Three DVD Bonus Materials
The DVD containing A Serious Man provides three extras with a total runtime of about 33 minutes. The most worthwhile is probably "Becoming Serious," a making-of that allows us to hear from Joel and Ethan Coen, who say their original idea was to tell the story of a 13-year-old boy. It evolved into more the story of his father, but they still consider the movie's climax to be the boy's bar mitzvah, which the kid muddles through stoned on marijuana. They acknowledge the world they create in the film is reminiscent of the one they grew up in, and that it was easy for them to make the protagonist a professor since their parents were both academics.
"Creating 1967" is a moderately interesting 14-minute featurette about locations, sets, costuming and props. We learn the film was shot in the Minneapolis area, and the neighborhood where Larry lived was shot in Bloomington, Minnesota. The synagogue in the movie was fairly close to the one the Coens attended as boys. Larry's car is a 1966 Coronet, and they used four of them.
The DVD also includes the invaluable "Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys," which in a little over two minutes supplies definitions of some key terms that come up in the film. For example: "get — A divorce under Jewish law that is required to dissolve a marriage in addition to a civil divorce." In the movie, Larry's wife wants a get so she can remarry within the faith.
Below I have listed all the details for the DVD containing A Serious Man.
Release Date: February 9, 2010
Feature Film Runtime: 1 hour 46 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Language, Some Sexuality/Nudity and Brief Violence
Aspect Ratio 1.85:1, Color
English 5.1 Dolby Digital
Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital
French 5.1 Dolby Digital
English Captions for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing
Becoming Serious (17 min.)
Creating 1967 (14 min.)
Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys (2 min. 15 sec.)