Top 100 Films #18 – A Serious Man (2009)

 

untitled7#18. A Serious Man (2009)
Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick

Another bizarre and wholly unique film from two of the most talented filmmakers in Hollywood, the Coen Brothers.  A Serious Man is a much different film than anything Joel and Ethan had tackled in the past, and many critics have agreed that the film shows just how much the two directors have grown up over the years.  Their 2009 film follows a Jewish physics professor named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) as his life slowly, but surely, falls apart around him. His son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is getting in trouble at school, his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is in love with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a respected member of the Jewish community, and his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is involved in some less than flattering legal problems.  On top of all this, Larry’s application to receive tenure at the university is in jeopardy.  A Serious Man is another in a series of Coen Brothers films that sees a person’s life drastically changing for the worse, employing some of the classic dark humour found in films like No Country for Old Men, Fargo, and Barton Fink.  Though it’s a much more subtle humour than some of their films, the screenplay is a masterwork in terms of character study – Larry Gopnik is an immediately compelling character almost entirely due to how unlucky and unfortunate things are going for him.  Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as Larry is pitch perfect – his frustration is always apparent, even though he almost never has the opportunity to give it a voice. Every time things seem to be going better for Larry, something else becomes muddled or another question is raised, creating more frustration and unhappiness in our unfortunate lead.  Fred Melamed’s supporting turn as Sy Ableman is hilariously maddening, with Ableman making Larry out to be the bad guy even though Sy is directly challenging his family dynamic.  While I hesitate to use a word like “underrated” for A Serious Man (it was even nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 2010), I feel as if it does get lost in the Coen Brothers’ impressive filmography.  It feels like a deeply personal project for the two brothers, and delves into complex and subtle themes of faith and destiny that are incredibly compelling and intriguing.  It’s a darkly hilarious and intelligent look at one man’s misfortunes, which is something the Coen’s do better than any other active American filmmaker.  A Serious Man is an unsung masterpiece, and deserves to be put on a pedestal beside films like Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and other Coen Brother masterpieces.

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