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A Serious Man(2009)
An original and darkly humorous story about one ordinary man’s quest to become a serious man. Physics professor Larry Gopnik can’t believe his life: His wife is leaving him for his best friend, his unemployed brother won’t move off the couch, someone is threatening his career, his kids are a mystery and his neighbor is tormenting him by sunbathing nude. Struggling to make sense of it all, Larry consults three different rabbis and their answers lead him on a twisted journey of faith, family, delinquent behavior and mortality.
For more about A Serious Man and the A Serious Man Blu-ray release, see A Serious Man Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on January 29, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Simon Helberg, Adam Arkin, George Wyner
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
» See full cast & crew
A Serious Man Blu-ray Review
"Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you."
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, January 29, 2010
Three rabbis counsel a man in crisis. Sound like the setup to a really bad joke? In lesser hands it might be just that, but in the skilled embrace of master filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen (forthwith referred to as the Coen Brothers, for dramatic effect of course), it's an oversimplified synopsis of the pair's latest dark comedy, A Serious Man. Both a tale of waning faith and a profound parable of perseverance in the face of insurmountable odds, the film is anything but conventional -- after opening with a bit of fabricated Jewish folklore, it slowly introduces its principal characters, unveils their tribulations, heaps turmoil on top of turmoil, and abruptly ends before its story has a chance to wrap up -- and anything but predictable. In fact, the first time I waded through its seemingly murky waters, I was left confused and bewildered. As a longtime Coen apologist, I've scoffed at many a shortsighted detractor; friends who couldn't wrap their heads around No Country for Old Men, balked at O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and declared Fargo to be cumbersome and aimless. But as the credits rolled on A Serious Man, the words "I just don't get it" lingered on my tongue. Fast forward to my second viewing (a mere twenty-four hours later), one I deemed necessary after I couldn't stop thinking about Larry Gopnik and his misadventures in faith. Thankfully, it was more rewarding than my first.
Physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is watching his life fall apart. His detached wife (Sari Lennick) wants a ritualistic divorce so she can marry synagogue lothario Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), his children (Aaron Wolff and Jessica McManus) seem more concerned with the trappings of the material world (chiefly marijuana and nose jobs) than their faith, his academic tenure is being threatened by a series of anonymous letters, his doctor is attempting to reach him with some troubling news, his wild-eyed neighbor (Peter Breitmayer) is brazenly encroaching on his property line, his lawyer (Adam Arkin) isn't helping matters, his legal fees are racking up, a Korean student (David Kang) is trying to bribe his way to a passing grade, his live-in brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is attracting the attention of the local police, and a glimpse of a naked woman (Amy Landecker) introduces more temptation into the mix. And that lengthy laundry list only covers the poor man's most pressing problems. Desperate to understand why God would subject such a loyal, humble believer to so many trials, Larry embarks on a quest for answers, seeking out the wisdom of three rabbis. Unfortunately, the first (Simon Helberg) is a junior shepherd who lacks life experience and doles out clichés, the second (George Wyner) is a more seasoned advisor but even less helpful, and the third (Alan Mandell) is an elderly recluse who isn't interested in seeing people like Larry.
The Coen Brothers handle slowburn pacing and eccentric characters like no other, and A Serious Man is perfectly tailored to their sensibilities and style. More personal than Burn After Reading, and far more thoughtful than their weaker works (The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty), it bends and braces with Larry's mounting questions. As he falls further and further into hopelessness, so too does the movie. As he drifts farther and farther from his God-given path, so too do the filmmakers from their established tone and atmosphere. Without warning, but with the subtlest of steps, the Coens' dark comedy evolves into a modern allegory; Larry steps into the shoes of Job, Saul, David, and other iconic figures of Judaism known for their crises of conscience, while his adversaries mutate into Job's shady counselors, Jezebel, Bathsheba, and Lucifer himself. As they all change before our eyes, the brothers pepper the story with age-old questions that have haunted humanity since religious ideals and scientific reason began their never-ending feud. What does it all mean? Why do such awful things happen to good people? How can a loving deity subject his servants to so much pain? Is there a higher calling? Are we able to discern the will of the divine? The Coens tackle each question with welcome intelligence and sharp wit, rarely abandoning the cloaked comedy of it all and never resorting to cheap cynicism or superficial satire to plug up any philosophical gaps. Even when coincidence and phenomena begin to surface in Larry's life, the nimble filmmakers don't miss a step, granting their disheveled hero opportunities to retreat or stand firm no matter how absurd or challenging his circumstances become.
To their great credit, the brothers avoid preachy subtext, political jabs, religious barbs, or anything else that might detract from the heart of A Serious Man. By setting the story in the late '60s, they're able to focus on the characters and the characters alone, eliminating all but the most fundamental, and subsequently relevant, elements of the film. Larry is as much an everyman as he is a lost soul; as much an innocent victim as he is a flawed sinner. Elsewhere, his son is faced with a parallel crisis -- a sins-of-the-father heritage of sorts -- and often receives the very answers dear old dad has been begging for. As it turns out, the perils of miscommunication is the film's most enduring, most deliberately executed theme. If the two had a proper relationship, they'd be able to contribute their revelations to each other, but as singular entities, they only complicate their individual ordeals. The same applies to Larry's relationships with his wife, daughter, brother, rabbis, and virtually every other character that graces the screen. A Serious Man is as much a commentary on man's self-imposed isolation from himself and his family as it is a piercing look at a man's isolation from God. Just be warned: it isn't a laugh-out-loud comedy, a mind-blowing satire, or a moving drama. It meanders somewhere in between, serving up bleak dramedy and dry humor worthy of its namesake. Yes, I had to watch it more than once to appreciate its finer qualities. And yes, I'll probably grow to love it even more with further viewings. But that's the joy of sinking into a good Coen Brothers' flick. I can't wait to find the time to watch it again.
A Serious Man Blu-ray, Video Quality
With a striking, nearly hypnotic 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer tucked snuggly in its belt, the Blu-ray edition of A Serious Man is a seriously stunning sight to behold. Cinematographer Roger Deakins' artful palette -- whether simmering in Jefferson Airplane oranges and reds, brimming with earthy leatherbound browns, swimming in autumnal oak, or awash with clinical greens and storm-cloud grays -- is strong and stable, populating the presentation with exceedingly natural skintones, alluring primaries, and impeccably resolved blacks. Contrast is remarkable as well, lending the image depth and dimensionality befitting the vast classrooms and cramped offices that dot Larry's descent into hopelessness. And detail? Just take a moment to peruse the screenshots accompanying this review, dear readers. Fine textures have been carefully rendered and refined, definition is incredibly sharp yet incredibly clean (no edge enhancement or ringing here), and delineation is quite revealing. Moreover, artifacting, source noise, aliasing, DNR, and crush are nowhere to be found. Some slight but pesky shimmering is an occasional distraction, but it isn't prevalent enough to warrant much concern. All in all, A Serious Man looks fantastic in high definition. Some will even argue, perhaps rightfully so, that its transfer is a top-tier, reference level presentation. Well done, Universal.
Please note: the Coens' opening segment is accurately presented with a 1.32:1 aspect ratio (see screenshot 13) while the remaining film is presented at 1.85:1.
A Serious Man Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Be careful passing judgment on Universal's oh-so-subtle DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track during A Serious Man's opening act. Make no mistake, when it wants to be heard, it does so with poise and power. While the majority of the film is a front-heavy, conversational affair, brief but steady eruptions of madness make the whole of the track a truly satisfying experience. Title cards appear with the hearty thunder of a slamming prison cell door, a three-car accident packs notable punch, intermittent '60s classics assault the listener from every direction, a surging storm calls upon the full force of the LFE channel, a face-on-blackboard attack arrives with a wince-inducing thud thud thud, and a rabbi's anecdote is blessed with enveloping sonics that makes its playful soundscape as memorable as his story's intentionally anticlimactic conclusion. Through it all, subdued rear activity delivers realistic interior acoustics and environmental ambience, all of which are a testament to the soundfield's worth. Dialogue remains warm, crisp, and perfectly prioritized regardless of the passivity or aggressiveness of the scene it accompanies, and directional effects are precise and convincing. Don't misunderstand. A Serious Man doesn't boast a bombastic mix or a traditionally immersive track. However, those who appreciate the Coen Brothers' less-is-more sound design will be more than pleased with the results.
A Serious Man Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Aside from Universal's usual bells and whistles -- My Scenes bookmarking, BD-Live Functionality, and a studio News Ticker -- the Blu-ray release of A Serious Man includes just three featurettes. "Becoming Serious" (HD, 17 minutes), a must-see dissection aimed at those who had a difficult time understanding the film or its characters; "Creating 1967" (HD, 14 minutes), an interesting production tour that focuses on set design, costumes, and props; and "Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys" (HD, 2 minutes), a self-explanatory glossary of sorts that provides rapidfire definitions for some of the Yiddish terms and slang sprinkled throughout the film.
A Serious Man Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
A Serious Man is an unexpected delight; a disarming dark comedy about the toils of life and the mysteries of the hereafter that revels in asking big questions, withholding even the simplest of answers, and submerging its characters in the muck of their tumultuous existences. Some people will need to watch it more than once -- I have a feeling I'll grow to love it even more in subsequent viewings -- but it's yet another unforgettable film from two of the most exciting writers and directors in the industry. Universal's Blu-ray release is commendable as well. While its supplemental package is a thirty-minute disappointment, its video transfer offers a near-perfect presentation and its DTS-HD Master Audio track is a faithful success. Renting A Serious Man is the wisest course of action for anyone who hasn't seen the film, but Coen Brother acolytes will find their money has been well spent on this one.
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