The following review is completely spoiler free!
First off this week, you may have noticed that I have come up with a name for this segment, The Collection Chronicles. Basically, it stems from the fact that I am trying to build up my personal DVD collection. Right, now that’s out of the way let’s get started.
If you aren’t a fan of the Coen brothers, then all I can do is apologise that my first two disc dissections have focused on their work. However, I do promise that next week I will branch out.
Why did I decide to watch another Coen brothers film you ask? Well, as I said at the end of last week’s dissection, ‘Barton Fink’ fuelled my hunger for more. So here I am, having helped myself to another large portion of Coen delight.
Or perhaps delight is the wrong word to use this week. ‘A Serious Man’ stars Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik, a middle aged Jewish physics teacher whose life is falling apart in front of his very eyes. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce so she can leave him for his work colleague and close friend Sy (Fred Melamed), his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) shows no signs of finding his own home, his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) spends his time getting high and not listening in school, and his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) just wants nothing to do with him. Oh, and his neighbours are a hunting loving father and son on one side, and on the other is a mysterious lonely woman who torments Larry by sunbathing naked.
Unsure about what to do, he turns to his faith for answers. One by one, he meets with three rabbis in the hope their wisdom will guide him. Varying degrees of success (and hilarity) follow.
When the film starts, you may be excused for believing that you have inserted the wrong disc, as what follows is a five minute Yiddish folklore tale which the Coen brothers made up. It has almost no bearing whatsoever on the rest of the film but I actually really enjoyed it, found it fascinating and I also thought it was a very unique way to kick-start a film and grab the viewers attention.
The comedy style used in the film is dark and deadpan, so nothing new there then for the Coen brothers. I don’t have a major issue with the lack of originality, I just wished it had been funnier that it ultimately was. There were a few laugh out loud moments certainly, and the comedic timing was bang on, particularly from Stuhlbarg. I just wanted more of it. A lot more.
Also, if you’re not a Jew like myself, a lot of the language used in the script will mean nothing to you. That is until you watch the very helpful bonus feature which explains the Hebrew and Yiddish terms used (more on that later). This also makes it hard for me to relate to any character. If you’ve been through a bar mitzvah then I’m sure you will appreciate the closing moments of the film far more than I did.
What this film does brilliantly, is capture the look and the feel of 1967 Midwest America. The houses that line the neighbourhood and the costume designs are extremely subtle but the effect they have on the aesthetics is anything but. If you’re a bit of a petrol head and love classic cars, there are some corkers in this. I am by no means a car lover, but boy I really did appreciate some of the beauties on display.
Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance is a real highlight, the way he handles himself while his world falls apart is incredibly admirable and you really do feel for him. There are some lovely, touching scenes that he shares with his brother Arthur which stand out in the memory.
What isn’t a highlight, are the performances of Aaron Wolff and Jessica McManus as Larry’s children. They both came across as rather wooden and stilted unfortunately. Larry’s friend and work colleague Sy Ableman is an incredibly irritating character, you just want to punch him in the face every time he speaks and that’s all credit to Fred Melamed’s performance because I’m sure that’s what Joel and Ethan Coen were going for. Sy’s story in the film takes a sudden and unexpected turn which I loved as well because that then triggers more unfortunate issues for poor old Larry.
I was also hoping for more from the rabbi scenes. Aside from the first rabbi Larry meets, Rabbi Scott played by Simon Helberg who you may know from ‘The Big Bang Theory’, these scenes were actually quite dull. The meeting with Rabbi Scott however is actually very funny.
A fairly enjoyable film in which Michael Stuhlbarg delivers a strong lead performance, but some weak acting from the younger members of the cast and a real lack of laughs mean that I can’t give it any more than 3 stars.
There are three bonus features available, and each of them are well worth a watch. The first, ‘Becoming Serious’, is a 17 minute behind the scenes featurette, with interviews from all the major cast members and also an interesting insight from the Coen brothers themselves.
Next, is an equally fascinating, 13 minute insight titled ‘Creating 1967’ which is exactly what it says on the tin, with interviews from production designers among others. A look into how they transformed the locations into superbly realistic period pieces. Plus those cars, oh baby…
Finally, a very short, snappy, well put together language guide called ‘Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys’. Don’t know what a goy is? This useful little bonus feature reveals all. Or, you know, just Google it.