It is 1967, and Larry Gopnik (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 colleagues, 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 Wolf) 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.
The Coen Brothers' 'A Serious Man' begins with a bizarre prologue set in Poland a century removed from the main story. This sequence, shot in 1.33:1 (while the rest is in glorious widescreen), is a Jewish folk tale about the kindness of strangers and the meaningless of life (or something). And in its spooky, spiritual way, this sequence sets the tone for the rest of the movie — one in which faith and the troubles of everyday life collide in a typically Coens-y way.
After the credits, we are met with the story's main thrust, centering on a Jewish family in 1967 Midwest suburbia. Larry Gopnik (superb stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg) seems to be doing just fine: he's got a family, life is slightly strained by his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) and his constant monopolization of the bathroom, but otherwise things are just fine. His son (Aaron Wolff) is about to become a man; he himself is about to be tenured at his college; and in general, it doesn't feel like the cosmos are against him. Then his life turns to shit.
In short order, his wife (Sari Lennick) tells him that she's leaving him for another man (a wonderfully wormy Fred Melamed), and wants an official Jewish divorce. His brother, who carries around a notebook filled with Byzantine mathematical ramblings that could potentially predict tornadoes and/or help him cheat at cards, gets into more and more trouble. He starts fantasizing about his comely Jewish neighbor, who smokes weed and sunbathes naked (a brassy and cougar-ishly awesome Amy Landecker). And a Korean student, troubled by his failing grade, bribes Larry into passing him.
All of these personal windfalls build and build, which crescendo with increasing intensity and are peppered with the Coens' penchant for the weird and absurd (remember how 'The Man Who Wasn't There' had a UFO?), as well as their superb knack for casting (Adam Arkin shines as Larry's lawyer). Larry goes to visit three rabbis (they even get their own title cards!), but he leaves each one feeling more confused than the last (one tells an involved story about a gentile whose front teeth were mysteriously inscribed with a Jewish phrase).
While this sounds like a kind of depressing Philip Roth-ian thing, it's not. But it's not a wacky comedy either. (Those troubled by the excessive, nihilistic mugging of 'Burn After Reading' should be pleased with the sincerity on display here.) Somehow the Coens manage to sidestep the pitfalls of the "midlife crisis" film, enriching it with deep philosophical and spiritual questions that, quite frankly, I'm still trying to figure out after several viewings. This might be the Coens most personal film, but just like the rest, it's still hard to decipher, figure out, and unlock - full of puzzles, conundrums, and loose ends. The one attempt at clarity happened at the press screening I attended for 'Serious Man,' when the PR representative handed me a glossary of Jewish terms. It was helpful.
Technically, the movie is just as sound as anything else they've done, with Roger Deakins' gorgeous cinematography, Carter Burwell's twinkly score (accented by a half-dozen Jefferson Airplane songs), and the Coens themselves contributing outstanding editorial work (under their assumed identity Roderick Jaynes, who had a hilariously detailed biography in the press notes). The performances are universally great, with Stuhlbarg as the obvious standout. He's a sort of hapless Woody Allen-type character, befuddled and enraged but too castrated by suburban life to do much of anything about it. However, he's far from passive, and it's a testament to Stuhlbarg's talent that he can get across so much without saying a whole lot - a stutter, a facial tic, a twisted eyebrow conveys it all. He is genuinely confused and upset by his situation, and he's not sure who to blame, and what role God has to do with any of it. Sometimes, as the bumper sticker says and the Coens suggest, shit happens.
Is the movie perfect? No. At times it feels almost overwhelmingly overstuffed, there's about one dream sequence too many (this isn't a Buñuel film for crying out loud) and by the end, you think the Coens might have too many balls in the air, with resolution posing a prickly problem. Thankfully, they avoid this by one of the ballsiest endings in recent memory. If people were confused and pissed off by the last scene of 'No Country for Old Men,' I predict nothing short of rioting once the credits roll.
But that said, the conclusion makes a perfect kind of sense. We're left with just as many questions as poor Larry, wondering what our cinematic God (the Coens) have put us through. This is the Coens, coming back from the minor folly that was 'Burn After Reading,' in a big way, proving once again that they're one of the most vital filmmaking teams in cinema today. Jews and gentiles can both agree on that one. As a character says in the movie: "Accept the mystery."
Vital Disc Stats
The 50GB disc does not auto-play and is Region "A" locked. It's also BD-Live equipped but there's nothing going in that area just yet. That's about it.
Universal's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer (the aspect ratios are 1.33:1 for the prologue and 1.85:1 for the rest of the movie) is a loving representation of the film. This is one great transfer.
First, you need to know that genius cinematographer Roger Deakins and the Coens decided to do something different in a few sequences, most notably the prologue and anytime there is ahem, some marijuana consumed, where the edges of the frame will go fuzzy. This is intentional and quite gorgeous. Sometimes it's very subtle like in an early classroom scene, sometimes it's more extreme, but I just thought I would warn those of you who would look at the picture and scream "This is supposed to be HD but it's all blurry!" (Not that I think any of you would actually do that.) It's a natural progression of the technique Deakins used on the stunning 'Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' and it really goes a long way in terms of making the movie so visually unique that you'll want to revisit it time and time again.
Other than that, the image quality on 'A Serious Man' is absolutely stunning. The crisp blues and greens of the suburbs, the period detail is amazing (check out the scene, early in the movie, with the Hebrew school principle – the lines on this guy's face are worthy of a purchase in and of itself), blacks are deep and dark, skin tones look great, and overall it's just a sumptuous visual package.
There aren't any buggy technical issues to speak of. In fact, the clarity of the Blu-ray picture could help us in unraveling the film's deeper mysteries, as we're given a better look at that crazy notebook… Hmmm… Blu-ray as a tool for unlocking certain enigmatic films' mysteries?
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is extremely subtle and well done.
This is a dialogue heavy film so things are mostly front-and-center. But that said, everything is clear and well prioritized. When the film does open up, like during a scene at a diner or a sequence at a crowded beachside area, you get some nice surround sound support. And when the film careens into weirdo Coenstown towards the end of the movie, which involves a car crash and other calamities, the track shows robust surround support, making great use of the entire sound field. (There's a scene where people dramatically slurp soup that is quite good.) Also, when the movie takes to a series of title cards indicating the rabbis our hapless hero searches for, we get a bunch "boom" that really fills the mix. While certainly not the most atmospheric mix you've ever heard, it is sturdy and well done.
Additionally, both Carter Burwell's minimalist score and the handful of Jefferson Airplane songs, sound spectacular on this mix. Both are superb and are superbly reproduced here.
Again: this isn't exactly a wham-bam dynamo of a surround track, but it is incredibly graceful, nuanced, and full of character. And when the wham-bam dynamo moments do come up, they sound great. This is a mix subtle enough to get overlooked but it should be praised just the same.
There are also audio options in French DTS 5.1 and Spanish DTS 5.1 as well as subtitles in Spanish SDH, French and Spanish.
There are only a couple of special features here, but they are quite good. It's a shame the film's trailer isn't on here, as it was also really effective and great.
The new Coen Brothers' film comes highly recommended from yours truly. Sure, it's pretty weird, but it's also one of the brothers' most personal and emotionally involving works yet – honest, real, and at times hysterical. With superb audio and video and a nice (if not incredibly lengthy) amount of special features, it's a solid if not overwhelming package. If you've seen (and loved) the film, this is a no-brainer purchase. To everyone else, it's highly recommended. Hopefully this is an indicator of things to come – with only a handful of Coens movies on Blu-ray, we could sure use some more! Go ahead. Accept the mystery.