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A Serious Man
Nothing to get excited about.
A Serious Man
Michael Stuhlbarg Stars in "A Serious Man."
DOMESTIC TOTAL: $4,000,000
OTHER PREVIEWS: Alatriste (7/10)
  This Film is NOT a Future Release.
  The Following Preview has been Archived.

September 7th, 2009: "A Serious Man" is the story of an ordinary man's search for clarity in a universe where Jefferson Airplane is on the radio and F-Troop is on TV. 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. While his wife and Sy Ableman blithely make new domestic arrangements, and his brother becomes more and more of a burden, an anonymous hostile letter-writer is trying to sabotage Larry's chances for tenure at the university. Also, a graduate student seems to be trying to bribe him for a passing grade while at the same time threatening to sue him for defamation. Plus, the beautiful woman next door torments him by sunbathing nude. Struggling for equilibrium, Larry seeks advice from three different rabbis. Can anyone help him cope with his afflictions and become a righteous person a mensch a serious man?

What to Expect: One of the most important things anyone in Hollywood can have is cred. Talent is great, box-office draw is great, creativity is great, but none of it matters if no one will let you do what you want or make the kinds of films you want to make, how you want to make them. Many filmmakers and actors and writers labor their entire careers just to get to the point where studios don't ask too many questions. They work and slave and eventually, after having produced enough high quality and/or profitable work, they build enough cred to be able to go to the money people and say "This is what we're doing. Shut up and write the checks."

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The Coen brothers, I think, are officially there.

Their fourteenth film, "A Serious Man," is one of three rapid-fire releases, coming close on the heels of both "No Country for Old Men" and "Burn After Reading." The former was lauded by everyone who gives out awards, the latter was met with very mixed reception. The fact that the Coens have as much cred as they do is kind of surprising. As we all know, money is the bottom line for everything in Hollyweird, and as critically acclaimed and adored by film enthusiasts as the Coens' films are...they're not that financially successful. Over their fourteen releases, the total box offixe gross is only $345 million. Their highest-grossing film is "No Country for Old Men" which made $74 million. Those aren't blockbuster numbers, but they probably look pretty good to a studio considering that these films don't cost an arm and a leg. High-priced actors take pay cuts to appear in a Coen film, there are very few effects, little post-production and the scripts are written by the Coens themselves.

However it's measured, the Coens have amassed enough cred to make this movie, a dark comedy with absolutely no stars whatsoever. After years of making films with Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Tommy Lee Jones and John Malkovich, they're going in a different direction.

"A Serious Man" stars Michael Stuhlbarg, who you've never heard of. You might possibly have seen him. He's done guest spots on some TV shows, the usual "Law and Order" guest spots that are done by just about every theater actor ever. He's a Tony-nominated stage actor who just got a big headstart thanks to the Coens. Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a professor in 1967 Minnesota, whose life is falling apart. His unemployable brother is sleeping on his couch and won't leave. His wife wants a divorce. His kids both steal from him, the son to pay for marijuana, the daughter to pay for a nose job. Someone's trying to keep him from getting tenure with poison pen letters, a student is bribing him for grades, and the neighbor lady won't stop nude sunbathing. Larry needs help. He's not fine. He seeks out the advice of local rabbis, in the hopes that they can help him become a person of substance...a serious man.

The film was announced in 2007, before the strike and before even "No Country for Old Men" had been released. It shot on location in Minnesota, where the Coens went to great lengths to locate a neighborhood with true-to-period suburban ranch houses. Having grown up in the Midwest myself, I can't believe that was too difficult, those 1950s ranches are pretty thick on the ground most places. The Coens have a flair for period that's subtle. They use small cues to let the atmosphere of another time permeate the whole film's look and feel. The 1980s of "Fargo," the 1950s of "The Man Who Wasn't There," the Depression era of "O Brother, Where Are Thou?" Actually, it's pretty rare for them to set a film in the present day.

The Everyman casting goes far beyond the leading man, though. Gopnik's brother is played by Richard Kind, who was on "Spin City" and some other sitcoms. Not the first name to spring to mind for a Coen brothers film but clearly he's who they wanted for the part. Gopnik's wife and children are played by local actors who are not just mostly unknown like Stuhlbarg, but totally unknown, as in this is the first credit on their IMDB listing. One other recognizable name in the film is Fyvush Finkel, veteran of "Picket Fences" and other TV appearances. But seriously...when Fyvush Finkel is the most famous name on your cast list, that's some pretty deep-bench casting. Adam Arkin is listed as being in the film, but I'm not sure what role he's playing.

The film is described as a black comedy, like "Fargo," but I have my doubts. Was I the only one who noticed that "No Country for Old Men" was basically the same movie as "Fargo?" We can only keep re-making "Fargo" so often, guys. "Black comedy" is kind of a catch-all description for movies that no one knows how else to describe. I once heard "Donnie Darko" described as a black comedy, which...no. Just...no. And the Coens' definition of "comedy" is often not like our Earth definition. Their humor is tiny and slantwise, not broad and direct. They find laughter in things like off-center shots of doorknobs. This isn't to say that their films don't contain humor. But "containing humor" and "comedy" are not the same thing.

The description of the film's plot makes me think there's more going on here than they're letting on. As I related it above, this film's plot...isn't. It doesn't really have an arc like plots usually do. That's not necessarily bad, but it has to be overcome. So there's this guy whose life sucks and he goes to consults rabbis to find out how to be someone that people take seriously. And...that's it? Does the character undergo a change? Does he decide he'll never be a serious man and learn to live with it? Does he change the way he deals with the world? It's unclear. If he does none of these things, the film won't have much forward momentum, and that's how audiences get bored. Mainstream audiences already have trouble getting Coen films as it is. Just look at those box office numbers. Middle America ain't exactly flocking to the cineplexes to take in the latest Coen film.

Then again, maybe that's the point. Who's this film about? A Middle America dude with issues, like people have. He's being played by no one we know or recognize, someone bringing no baggage with him to the role, no expectations from moviegoers about who he is. Can it be that the Coens are trying to make a film that'll speak to exactly the people they've always had trouble reaching? The people who didn't "get" their other films? That, for them, would be revolutionary.

I have to address one more thing about this film before I render judgment, and that's the trailer. I try to avoid talking too much about traditional publicity for upcoming films, but this one just has to be mentioned, because it generated a pretty big wave of buzz for a film that had none, given its lack of paparrazzi-ready stars or central shooting locations. The trailer for this film, in grand Coen tradition, is a little short film in itself. It gives away very little of the plot, merely repeating a few key phrases counterpointed by the repetitive sound of Gopnik's head being slammed against a blackboard. It's like a little mini-study in middle-class angst, and you come away from it knowing not a whole hell of a lot about the movie itself. I kind of love that.

Now I think I'll go re-watch "The Hudsucker Proxy." You know...for kids.

In Conclusion: A film without stars from a pair of director/writers who no longer need them? A story about a regular dude searching for meaning in a very Coen-esque way? I wish I could say it'll do well but I seriously doubt it. I have a lot more hope for good reviews than for strong box office. Not many people who aren't Coen devotees are going to carve out a Friday night to see this. But the Coens' films have legs, and success long past their theater runs, many of them achieving cult status, so let's stay optimistic.

Similar Titles: The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Ladykillers
October 2nd, 2009 (limited)
February 9th, 2010 (DVD)

Focus Features

Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind, Aaron Wolf, Sari Wagner, Jessica McManus, Adam Arkin

Total: 15 vote(s).

Comedy, Drama

Click here to view site

Rated R for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence.

105 min





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