A Serious Man

UK/USA/France 2009, 106 mins
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

In 25 years of filmmaking, Joel and Ethan Coen have established themselves as a major international voice, a postmodern sensibility overcome with cosmic jokiness. If No Country for Old Men, in all of its Oscar-winning graveness, was the Coen brothers movie for those who don’t like Coen brothers movies, then A Serious Man may alienate the newfound viewer base all over again. It is simultaneously their most personal film – almost autobiographical in its details – and their most muddled, caught like a hairball in the throat (a frustrated simile they’d appreciate) between earnestness and mockery. For perhaps the first time in a Coen film outside No Country we are asked to authentically empathise with a realistic character in a realistic setting, and yet he and the landscape around him suffer the same lampooning slings and sardonic tone as the characters of Raising Arizona (1987), Barton Fink (1991), Fargo (1995) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). It’s an old complaint about the Coens, that they cruelly observe their hapless characters as they would pratfalling ants in an ant farm. But I’ve always thought their comic spirit, for better or worse, has been consistent and sharply observed, allowing melancholy and sensitivity to sneak in naturally like the back flavours of strong red wine. And now comes A Serious Man, a sincerely sympathetic portrait of an American family man in crisis – even as it insults its characters and derides their culture.

What seem like Coen-esque cheap shots to some viewers have always been read as zesty absurdism by others. Perhaps the reason A Serious Man chafes is because it is centred in such familiar territory: 1960s American suburbia, where lawn-mowing and wage-earner-and-homemaker domestic routine were the preoccupations, masking a secret battlefield of betrayal, frustration, sexual alternatives and – of course – doubts about one’s own empty materialism. We’ve seen mayhem play out in this arena many times before, from Blue Velvet to American Beauty, Revolutionary Road and TV’s Mad Men, and if you’re a suburbanite it’s easy to see the condescension coming at you in spadefuls. The Coens have reincarnated the Minnesota suburbs of their youth and focused on the milieu’s Jewish contingent, but like the two Sam Mendes films mentioned above, A Serious Man caricatures nearly every aspect of suburban life, leaving us to wonder whether we should be laughing at how Jews slurp soup or how teenage girls do nothing but wash their hair or how fat people walk even as we reluctantly chuckle.

The film’s Jewishness is the main course offered for digestion – the Job-like descent into lucklessness of Larry Gopnik, the beleaguered physics-prof hero, beginning with his irritable wife’s demand for a divorce. Larry embarks on a series of consultations with rabbis, looking for ‘the answer’ to life’s mysteries. As expressly Torah-informed as Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, but without that film’s genuine ethical gravity, A Serious Man is formed around the contest between the reasonless chaos of life and our traditional cultures’ desire to see order in it; but there’s not much real discourse on hand, and no larger metaphysical idea. The Coens have only occasionally stumbled into a fascinating world-view (for all of its genre irony, 1990’s Miller’s Crossing gets my vote), because they are instead masters of minutiae. Their new film is (again, typically) chin-deep in cultural details; the brothers get every little thing absolutely right, however broadly, from the Jewish American style of marital bickering to the different rabbis’ wise-yet-clueless solicitousness, to the Hebrew school boredom. Knowing a little Hebrew helps, but is not essential; the milieu is articulated with care but for sport, just as the Minnesotans were (gently) chided in Fargo and East Coast narcissism was ripped apart in Burn after Reading.

Other period details are inspired and unarguable: the slightly-off uncle sleeping on the couch and forever draining an abscess on his neck with a plug-in machine; the Korean student who tries ineptly to insist his F should get changed to a passing grade; the way Larry is bulldozed and silenced by the soothing rabbi-like arguments of his wife’s new lover; the dogged harassment of an agent of the Columbia Record Club; even the aluminium ‘G’ in the Gopniks’ front screen door. But nailing down the day and age is one thing; the fact remains that Larry’s son (whose bar mitzvah climaxes the film) is little more than a complaining joint-sneaker, his wife merely an inscrutable harridan, and so on. Amy Landecker’s hotpants neighbour’s wife Mrs Samsky, Peter Breitmayer’s bullet-head bigot Mr Brandt, the various synagogue employees we meet, all are similarly reduced to stark and laughable types.

This not only works against the nature of Larry’s tragic story – caused as it is not by human foil but by a confluence of unrelated bad things (only beginning with his family and his income) – but also against the moral questions the screenplay puts in his mouth. Is there much point in speculating about the justice of the universe and the purpose of ‘a good life’ if the movie you’re in defines everything and everyone around you as a shallow hoot?

Argue if you like that this movie’s philosophical inquiries are answered by the Coens’ ridicule – that life, like the film, is merely a thin joke by a cruel God or gods. What respect could the cosmos have for Larry (masterfully played by Michael Stuhlbarg in a perpetual reactive sputter) and his world if the filmmakers have little or none? The tonal inhospitality is a pity, because the movie is in the enjoyable Coen paradigm constructed like a clock that’s just on the verge of throwing gears, full of inventive nonsense and restlessly devoted to favouring eccentric texture over lockstep narrative, contrary to the manner of most American films.

Though there are no acting epiphanies here to rival Tony Shalhoub’s in Barton Fink or Jennifer Jason Leigh’s in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), A Serious Man doesn’t have a single dull or merely functional performance; even bit players have their pregnant comic moments. Still, the spectre of Richard Kind’s Uncle Arthur may be the movie’s conceptual triumph. Half-hidden in the bathroom for the first part of the film, he emerges as a profound mystery. Homeless and strange, he appears to us (via a thick notebook of obsessive scribblings) as a shut-in Charles Crumb figure, but then he is stalked by the police for playing illegal cards, and then for sodomy. When did he even leave the house? By the time Arthur succumbs to a breakdown, declaring his envy for Larry’s good fortune, neither we nor Larry know what to make of him. He may be the only character in the film who slips the noose of the filmmakers’ single-minded derision and he does it magnificently.
Michael Atkinson, Sight and Sound, December 2009

Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
©: Focus Features, LLC
Focus Features presents in association with StudioCanal and Relativity Media
a Working Title production
Executive Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Robert Graf
Produced by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Chief Operating Officer for Working Title: Angela Morrison
Executive in Charge of Production for Working Title: Michelle Wright
Production Supervisor: Karen Ruth Getchell
Production Accountant: Cheryl Kurk
Post-production Accountant: Trevanna Post, Inc.
Production Co-ordinator: Rachael Lin Gallaghan
Unit Production Manager: Robert Graf
Location Manager: Tyson Bidner
Post-production Supervisor: Catherine Farrell
1st Assistant Director: Betsy Magruder
2nd Assistant Director: Bac DeLorme
Script Supervisor: Thomas Johnston
Casting by: Ellen Chenoweth, Rachel Tenner
Casting Associate: Amelia Rasche
Extras Casting: Debbie DeLisi
Extras Casting Assistants: Kati Batchelder, Aaron Greenwood
Voice Casting: Sondra James
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Director of Photography: Roger Deakins
Camera Operator: Roger Deakins
1st Assistant Camera: Andy Harris
2nd Assistant Camera: Michael Lindquist
Camera Loader: Cole Koehler
Key Grip: Mitch Lillian
Still Photographer: Wilson Webb
Visual Effects by: Luma Pictures
Special Effects Co-ordinator: Larz Anderson
Special Effects Foreman: Paul Deely
Graphic Designer: Gregory Hill
Edited by: Roderick Jaynes
Associate Editor: Katharine McQuerrey
1st Assistant Editor: Emma Gaffney
Production Designer: Jess Gonchor
Art Director: Deborah Jensen
Assistant Art Director: Jeff Schoen
Art Department Co-ordinator: Jarrette Moats
Set Designer: Maria Baker
Set Decorator: Nancy Haigh
Lead Dresser: Scott Troha
On-set Dresser: Scott Nordhausen
Buyer: Jill Broadfoot
Lead Scenic Artist: Anne Hyvarinen
Property Master: Keith Walters
Construction Co-ordinator: Steve Anderson
Costume Designer: Mary Zophres
Assistant Costume Designer: Jenny Eagan
Key Costumer: Corrine Larson
Key Set Costumer: Jane Williams
Set Costumers: Nikki Fallenstein, Melissa Seitzer
Make-up Design/Department Head: Jean A. Black
Make-up Co-department Head: Mary K. Flaa
Assistant Make-up Artist: Carrie Messina
Age/Effects Make-up: Christien Tinsley
Hair Department Head: Frida S. Aradóttir
Assistant Hair Stylist: Deanna L. Johnson
Titles Designer: Randy Balsmeyer
Titles Sequences: Big Film Design
Digital Intermediate/Dailies by: EFilm
Post-production Facility: Post Factory
Opticals by: Plethorafx
Edited on: Final Cut Pro
Cameras by: Otto Nemenz
Music by: Carter Burwell
Conducted and Orchestrated by: Carter Burwell
Orchestra Contractor: Sandra Park
Music Editor: Todd Kasow
Music Scoring Mixer: Michael Farrow
Sound Designer: Craig Berkey
Production Sound Mixer: Peter F. Kurland
Boom Operator: Randy Johnson
Utility Sound: Chris Benson
Additional Utility Sound: Peter Zimbicki
Re-recording Mixers: Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff
Re-recorded at: Sony Pictures Studios
Supervising Sound Editor: Skip Lievsay
Dialogue Editors: Byron Wilson, James Morioka
ADR Editor: Kenton Jakub
Foley Artist: Marko A. Costanzo
Foley Mixer: George A. Lara
Foley Editor: Joel Dougherty
Subtitles: Big Film Design
Stunt Co-ordinator: Jery Hewitt
Yiddish Translations: Wendy Zierler, Allen Rickman
Unit Publicist: Claudia Gray

Michael Stuhlbarg (Larry Gopnik)
Richard Kind (Uncle Arthur)
Fred Melamed (Sy Ableman)
Sari Lennick (Judith Gopnik)
Aaron Wolff (Danny Gopnik)
Jessica McManus (Sarah Gopnik)
Peter Breitmayer (Mr Brandt)
Brent Braunschweig (Mitch Brandt)
David Kang (Clive Park)
Benjamin Portnoe (Danny’s reefer buddy)
Jack Swiler (boy on bus)
Andrew S. Lentz (cursing boy on bus)
Jon Kaminski Jr (Mike Fagle)
Ari Hoptman (Arlen Finkle)
Alan Mandell (Rabbi Marshak)
Amy Landecker (Mrs Samsky)
George Wyner (Rabbi Nachtner)
Michael Tezla (Dr Sussman)
Katherine Borowitz (friend at the picnic)
Stephen Park (Clive’s father)
Allen Lewis Rickman (shtetl husband)
Yelena Shmulenson (shtetl wife)
Fyvush Finkel (dybbuk)
Ronald Schultz (Hebrew school teacher)
Raye Birk (Dr Shapiro)
Jane Hammill (Larry’s secretary)
Claudia Wilkens (Marshak’s secretary)
Simon Helberg (Rabbi Scott)
Adam Arkin (divorce lawyer)
James Cada (cop 1)
Michael Lerner (Solomon Schlutz)
Charles Brin (Hebrew school principal)
Michael Engel (Torah blesser)
Tyson Bidner (Magbiah)
Phyllis Harris (Hebrew school tea lady)
Piper Sigel Bruse (D’vorah)
Hannah Nemer (Sarah’s friend)
Rita Vassallo (law firm secretary)
Warren David Keith (Dick Dutton)
Neil Newman (cantor)
Tim Russell (detective 1)
Jim Lichtscheidl (detective 2)
Wayne Evenson (Russell Krauss)
Scott Baker (sci-fi movie hero)

UK/USA/France 2009©
106 mins
Digital 4K

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Thu 11 Jan 14:40; Sun 21 Jan 12:10; Wed 31 Jan 17:50 (+ intro by film critic Phuong Le)
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Fri 12 Jan 14:30; Sat 27 Jan 18:00; Tue 30 Jan 20:15
A Serious Man
Mon 15 Jan 18:10; Mon 29 Jan 20:45
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Sat 20 Jan 11:45; Wed 24 Jan 18:10 (+ intro by Foster Hirsch, author and professor, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York); Sat 27 Jan 21:00

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
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