Sunday, October 25, 2009

From the Archive: "A Serious Man" Film Review

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition! In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features. You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here

Continue reading after the jump to access my original review of “A Serious Man.”

 From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
A Serious Man
Originally Published October 25th, 2009 

The Coen Brothers are great filmmakers for many, many reasons, but their ability to end a movie perfectly increasingly appears to be one of the duo’s most valuable traits. The Coens are rarely interested in the immediately satisfying ending, but instead on thoughtful and complex conclusions that, upon further inspection, always reveal an innate talent for driving the message of the story home as poignantly as possible. A Serious Man, their latest work, is no exception. The bleak but brilliant finale makes the rest of the movie better upon retrospection, and triggers a greater desire in the viewer to start reconsidering and deciphering the film’s tangled web of metaphor and symbolism. 

In stark contrast to the delightfully over-the-top silliness of Burn After Reading, A Serious Man is a dark, contemplative work, similar in tone to No Country For Old Men, albeit with a good dose of the brothers’ trademark black humor. Nevertheless, the two films are similar in that they demand the viewer be an active participant in watching the movie, considering what larger implications can be found in on-screen events.

A Serious Man takes place in 1967 in a small, unnamed town with a predominantly Jewish population. Larry Gopnik, the main character, has it rough. His life as a college physics professor seems to be going fine until the day his wife suddenly demands a divorce, a student tries to bribe him for a better grade, and his TV reception goes on the fritz. These are only a few of his problems. As with most Coen Brothers films, once things start getting bad, they are only going to get worse and worse and worse.

This is not a film heavy on plot, nor does it conform to conventional three-act structure. There is never a sense of rising or falling action, and Larry’s antagonist is nothing more than life itself. Long stretches of the film are devoted simply to establishing the rich and detailed setting of the Jewish community, and though I am not Jewish, I found the Coens’ evocation of this specific place and period to be absolutely fascinating. The brothers envelop us in the particulars of this community, illustrating its richness with such vivid detail that one starts feeling like an actual citizen of the town early on. The film’s deliberate pace and structure allows for this uniquely immersive quality, and much of what there is to love about the movie lies in its ability to transport and engross.

But this is just the setting. As I said, there is not necessarily a concrete plot, but instead a long and elaborate series of day-to-day trials and tribulations, many of them symbolic, that form the film’s powerful – and, admittedly, rather bleak – message. The film demands repeat viewings and leaves the viewer with much to ponder; it sticks with the viewer long after leaving the theatre, a quality all good films share.

The film is unique from the Coen Brothers’ last few outings in that no familar actors are used; the cast is primarily made up of unknowns. Thus, there is separation to be found between the actors and their characters, adding to the realistic atmosphere of the film. Michael Stuhlbarg leads the cast as Larry Gopnik, giving a very honest and raw performance that makes the character endearing from the get go. This is a tricky part, and a lesser actor could have trouble demanding this much sympathy, but Stuhlbarg carries the film effortlessly. The rest of the cast play their roles just as well, each helping to create another highly memorable set of Coen-style characters.

Though missing in action for Burn After Reading, longtime collaborator Roger Deakins has reunited with the Coens as director of photography for A Serious Man. His sublime touch is noticeable throughout, as even though the film is entirely dialogue driven, the visuals are immediately striking. An undercurrent of tension runs through every frame of the movie, even when little is actually happening, and much of that is attributable to Deakins’ spectacular cinematography. These are the same techniques he utilized to make No Country For Old Men the nail-biting thriller that it was, and those skills adapt flawlessly to this smaller scale drama.

A Serious Man does not stand quite as tall as some of the Coen Brothers’ most memorable masterpieces, like No Country For Old Men or The Big Lebowski, but it is an excellent film nevertheless, rich with detail and ideas and, of course, boasting an incredible ending. The Coens’ recent productivity has been a major boon to the modern cinematic landscape, and I cannot wait to see what they have in store in the years to come. 

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