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The Coen Brothers' Most Personal Film,
This review is from: A Serious Man [DVD] (DVD)
This 2009 film written, produced and directed by the Coen brothers is a darkly comic and poignant tale of a troubled man, Jewish college professor, Larry Gopnik (played with great skill and pathos by Michael Stuhlbarg). It is (probably) typical of these two most innovative of film-makers that, in the wake of their most lauded (critically and commercially) film, 2007's No Country For Old Men, they should turn to what is a very intimate, low-key and (as is their wont) quirky tale, with a distinctly autobiographical feel (being set in late 1960s Minnesota) and a film that is totally bereft of big (or even middling) name stars. A Serious Man is, however, most definitely an 'authentic' Coen brothers film (arguably the most distinctive example in their adopted style since 2000's O Brother, Where Art Thou?), featuring some beautifully evocative cinematography from regular collaborator Roger Deakins and a typically vibrant soundtrack (including music by Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix).
In their central character, the Coens have created something of a microcosm of US small-town Jewishness, encapsulating all its frustrations with religious faith, marital fidelity, family well-being, professional ambition and paranoid dread. As I watched the film, I couldn't shake the image of one of the greatest of all Jewish film-makers, Woody Allen, and in particular his famous line (from Broadway Danny Rose), 'I'm guilty all the time and I never did anything'. Larry's life is just one disaster (or curse, as depicted in the film's opening 'dybbuk' sequence) after another, his mid-life angst being fuelled by an unhappy wife, bickering kids, a troubled live-in brother, personal health paranoia, religious strictures, a corrupt student, job insecurity, irritating mail order record companies and a set of eccentric neighbours (including a glamorous, pot-smoking serial seducer and a gun-toting, hunting, respectable family man fascist).
Acting-wise, Stuhlbarg's central performance is brilliant, totally convincing in its portrayal of bewilderment, conformity, stoicism, subservience and eventually anger (such as during the brilliant scene where he is pinned down on the phone by the Columbia Record Club to settle debts, unbeknown to him, that have been incurred by his son, 'I haven't done anything!'). In addition, acting plaudits should go to Sarri Lennick's depiction of Larry's feisty and duplicitous wife, Judith, whilst Fred Melamed turns in a near-film stealing performance as Judith's intended, the smooth-talking, self-satisfied, touchy-feely Sy Ableman (Sy's insistence on reassuringly hugging Larry on each occasion that they meet is one of the film's funniest running gags). Also, as might be expected in a Coen brothers' film, there are many great supporting character performances by the assembled cast of policemen, lawyers, teachers, doctors and rabbis.
Deakins delivers many great idiosyncratic visual touches, in keeping with most of the Coens' work, comprising lingering close-ups, slow pans and odd camera angles. In terms of where A Simple Man fits within the Coens' oeuvre, its focus on a central character's frustrations and paranoia (for me) calls most readily to mind one of their masterpieces, Barton Fink. Whilst I don't rate this later film in quite the same league as the 1991 film - I think A Simple Man does begin to lose its way during its second half, before providing an interesting, if not altogether satisfying, denouement - this later effort, for me, certainly merits its place in the brothers' impressive body of work.