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A Serious Man
Genre Drama
Year: 2009
 
Review:

The Coen brothers have made some pretty crazy films over the years... focusing on dark comedy, adventure and more recently delving into the uncharacteristic domain of drama and thriller in their Oscar-winning, No Country for Old Men. Now as accurate as that Oscar contender adaptation was, I felt the Ethan and Joel Coen were on an Oscar mission rather than delving into a passion project. After all, how often do dark comedy crime adventures win Oscars? A Serious Man is another departure from their usual madcap antics, demonstrating their range and falling into a niche market for serious movie-goers... in the same realm as Synecdoche, New York.

A Serious Man doesn't have the all-star cast of Burn After Reading, the comic scenario of Raising Arizona or the undulating mystery of Fargo... it's a dramedy about uncertainty and duality. Front and centre is Larry Gopnik, a mathematics professor, whose life is crumbling around him in a series of stressful events. His wife is leaving him, his job's on the line, the bills are rising, the kids have no respect and he's confronted with a mid-life crisis of epic proportions, seeking spiritual guidance from local Rabbis. Oh, did I mention he's Jewish.

The film opens with a short Russian scene, which basically sets the tone for the rest of the film. There's no mention of A Serious Man and you're left in the dark, wondering if you're in the right cinema. The short drama has a Coen brothers feel to it, but establishes the feeling of uncertainty in an unconventional opening scene. A Serious Man is an intense, thought-provoking drama in the vein of American Beauty, which charms you with its intricate suburban crisis drama and remains long after the credits roll. At the heart of the film is the paradox of uncertainty that exists in life.

Gopnik's spiral of despair is counterbalanced by moments of self-awareness and revelation that make the run of terrible luck work in his favour. A Serious Man's sense of uncertainty creates an uneasiness, keeping one in a state of flux. It's slightly uncomfortable living through Gopnik's paradoxical life as the tension mounts, interspersed by jabs of dark comedy. The tone keeps one alert, trying to piece the puzzle together and find meaning in all the chaos only to find there's very little resolution at all.

The performances hold our attention, avoiding the distraction that comes with big name stars and their baggage.  Michael Stuhlbarg is Larry with solid supporting performances from Fred Melamed as Sy Ableman and Richard Kind as Uncle Arthur. This Coen brothers film tries to capture a slice-of-life, a bite of reality and a twist of the unexpected. It's unpredictable and flows like a real-life parable, comparable with Seinfeld - the "show about nothing" for its ebb and spiritual frame-of-reference (it's Jewish). The Coen brothers achieve their objectives, but this replicates the elliptic ending of No Country for Old Men. There's no closure for the film, just for the characters as the underlying uncertainty reaches a climax and fades away.

A Serious Man is brilliant in its artistry, creating a thought-provoking and intricate tapestry from its layered narrative, inspired direction and convincing performances. However, it rides a league above your regular cinema audience and makes the experience entertaining yet tainted by its slightly pretentious disconnection with its viewers. A Serious Man is primarily intended for entertainment purposes, but is also designed for multiple viewings as a study of film and its reflection of life in all its glorious uncertainty.

The bottom line: Thought-provoking.

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