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A Serious Man - Review

A Serious Man

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

HAVING enjoyed two of the most commercial successes of their illustrious careers with Burn After Reading and No Country For Old Men, the Coen brothers have decided to subvert expectation and deliver their most personal film to date.

A Serious Man is a home-coming tale of sorts that reflects the style of the earlier work (such as Blood Simple). It’s an intimate family tale of one man’s suffering that sounds like a bleak tragedy, but is played for barbed laughs.

As with any Coen movie, however, it’s another dazzling display of writing, directing and acting… one that will probably appeal to the die-hard fans rather than the newcomers, but a fascinating new entry onto their CV nonetheless.

Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a put-upon man. A hitherto successful Jewish Physics professor living an ordinary life in the ‘60s, he suddenly finds his life starting to fall apart around him.

His wife leaves to begin an affair with a neighbour for reasons she can’t explain, he has medical problems and he finds himself being blackmailed by a pupil at university… so he seeks answers in his religion. Alas, the responses are by no means as clear or helpful as they should be.

Joel and Ethan Coen were inspired to write A Serious Man after deciding it was time to revisit their childhood experiences. Hence, much of the film is shot amidst the community they were raised in, while the story is a deeply Jewish effort that does – admittedly – play better to those with a truer grasp of the Jewish faith.

But in spite of the personal nature of the story, it still delivers the goods in terms of entertainment. A Yiddish parable that prefaces the movie is entertaining and completely wrong-footing (it’s never mentioned again and has no relevance), but sets the standard for the wickedly playful story that ensues.

Larry is an endearing tortured soul made flesh and blood by the excellent Stuhlbarg. We root for him through thick and thin and no matter what the screenplay throws at him… which, in Joel and Ethan’s wicked hands is quite a life battering.

But Stuhlbarg imparts Larry with an optimism and decency that’s unshakeable, as well as a devotion to his faith and his family that’s inspiring. Just don’t go expecting any redemptive Hollywood-style ending!

Stuhlbarg is by no means alone, however, with sterling support coming from a quality ensemble cast that also includes the likes of Sari Lennick (as his no-nonsense wife), Fred Melamed (as her unlikely lover) and Richard Kind (as his similarly long-suffering brother).

Larry’s visits to three Rabbis, meanwhile, are genuinely hilarious, while the surprise ending is as delicious, black and thought-provoking as only the Coens know how. All this, complete with some typically beautiful cinematography from Coen veteran Roger Deakins, make this yet another Coen movie that shouldn’t be missed!

Certificate: 15
Running time: 105mins
UK Release Date: November 20, 2009