The Stage and Cinema
2010 Independent and Foreign Film
Review Writing Contest
Second place winner Colin George
Film: A Serious Man
Country: USA, UK, France
Language: English, Yiddish, Hebrew
Director: Ethan and Joel Coen
With a prolificacy unprecedented in their decade and a half filmmaking career, the Coen brothers have released three films in three
consecutive years. The first, 2007's "No Country for Old Men" won the duo a long belated best picture Oscar. Their second, the amiable "Burn
After Reading" received mixed reviews but remained a commercial success. "A Serious Man," their latest, is a semi-autobiographical parable about
the relevance of religion to modern society (modern being the seventies for a pair that have so tirelessly explored the earlier half of the
twentieth century). To label the piece one of the best films of the year is to undersell it; it's the Coens' best film of the decade.
The statement gives an initial impression of grandeur, but is still somewhat misleading given that the new millennium has seen a median
decline in the quality of the Coens' work, if only when compared to their streak of wildly diverse successes during the nineties. 2003 and 2004
also saw the release of their two most styleless films ("Intolerable Cruelty," "The Ladykillers"), which may prompt more cynical readers to
regard my proclamation as somewhat hallow. The greatest compliment I can pay the Coen brothers' latest effort may simply be to say that it holds
up to their best work. Radically different in setting and character while still embodying an ineffable Coen-ness, "A Serious Man" is truly worthy
of the duo's legacy.
Tonally, it bears closest similarity to "Fargo," in that the filmmakers' bizarre humor remains in tact, but is broadcast at a lower decibel
than "Burn After Reading," or "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" "A Serious Man" is a subtly engaging film, its pacing slow and deliberate, with a
series of escalating misfortunes that ratchet up the tension for the Coen's surrogate father, protagonist Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), until
the apotheosis funnels into one of the most viscerally cinematic and profoundly powerful endings in recent memory. The only thing that comes
close is maybe the last five minutes of Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood."
Without spoiling anything, the film is deliberately constructed to leave the interpretation of God, or the manifestation of His will, up to
the viewer. Is "A Serious Man" a film about fate, about the futility of religious practice, or about its importance? Plug in either
interpretation and it works, and that's just a sliver of the film's brilliance. Religion is really a perfect subject for the Coens, given that
the pair has always favored the unresolved and the unexplained in their storytelling. For them, God is the ultimate question mark.
But more importantly, above its philosophical and theological subtext, "A Serious Man" is an entertaining story. More reserved than perhaps
any of their films, the Coens still squeeze in their signature hard-edged silliness with a cast of memorable characters and offbeat subplots
involving the people in Larry's life: his dope-smoking son, dope-smoking neighbor, live-in brother, estranged wife, and her prospective future
husband. Truth be told, the events that transpire are rarely enthralling in the moment, but the further I stand from them, the more complete and
satisfying a portrait they form. The final moments are beautiful and haunting, and tie everything together so well with so little that you may
not realize how perfect it is until the credits are already rolling.
The Coens have reasserted themselves as incomparable American filmmakers worthy of mention in the same breath as genre-chameleon Billy Wilder.
With a relatively dry award season ahead of us, "A Serious Man" is at the top of my list, and though the pair won their first best picture Oscar
only two years ago, it suddenly seems rather implausible that they'll be waiting another thirteen years for their next.