Toronto 2009 Review: The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man
by Alex Billington
September 11, 2009
Can the Coen Brothers ever do wrong? Okay, they can, but this really isn't one of those times. A Serious Man is a seriously great film, with some brilliantly dark humor and a simple story that turns out to mean quite a bit by the end. It's probably the most Jewish comedy you'll see all year, about a Jewish family in a small Jewish town. The performances are all great and everything about it is pretty much spot on, but at this point I don't think anyone expects any less from the Coens. And in terms of their comedy, I laughed more during this than I did during Burn After Reading, and I even really enjoyed that film (at Toronto last year).
A Serious Man actually has a surprisingly different story than you might be expecting, especially if you've seen the trailer. Everything starts to spin out of control in the life of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a mathematics professor and father of a Jewish family, when his wife decides to leave him for another man, his crazy brother (Richard Kind) won't move out of the house, and he starts to run out of money. Three of the local Rabbis he visits for advice don't really tell him anything of value and he's just about to lose it when his pot-smoking son finally has his Bar Mitzvah. It's simple, but well-written, as usual from the Coens.
It's not that I wasn't expecting to laugh in a dark comedy from the Big Lebowski masterminds, I just didn't think I would be able to get into a Jewish comedy as much as I would a spy thriller like Burn After Reading. However, as I already mentioned, I found myself laughing out loud more in this than in Burn After Reading. The comedy is dry, often times quite dark, and sometimes even unintentional, but it was perfectly conceived. There's a great message in it that admittedly took me a while to gully figure out, but the film kept Peter from SlashFilm and I talking long afterward, which is a sign of great success, or at least spectacular filmmaking.
In short, I really enjoyed this film a lot, which wasn't too big of a surprise for me. In the first few minutes I was already thinking to myself, "God damn, the Coens are brilliant." They continue to create one great film after another and A Serious Man is just the latest fantastic feature from these two Minnesotan filmmakers.
Toronto Rating: 9 out of 10
Reader Feedback - 13 Comments
great news, Coen Bros. Rarely let me down! Just hope that I can laugh as it seems you did, Billington.
xerxex on Sep 11, 2009
i'm pumped... i loved Burn after reading, so the bar is set high.
Derek on Sep 12, 2009
A critic in my area pointed out about Burn After Reading, and the Coens in general, that although it wasn't their best movie it was still a great movie. I'm getting this subtext that we all expect too much from these men, and yet they keep a consistently higher quality than most film makers of this generation.
Prestron on Sep 12, 2009
so excited to see this!
-Peter- on Sep 12, 2009
cannot wait to see the movie and the talk at Walker Art center minnepolis. I did like Burn after Reading. But, Fargo was the best movie they have done to date. This is a good time to have a serious movie ( comedy) hit the scene in Minneapolis.
suzi mcardle on Sep 12, 2009
Really great review; I can't wait to see this. I love your coverage of the festivals, although it always makes me jealous--I get excited for the films, but then I'm stuck in the middle of nowhere, waiting for (or, in the case of smaller independent films, praying for) them to come to my theater. Sigh. At least I get to live vicariously a bit, so thanks. I was wondering, do you think there are trends in movie reviews? Do reviewers read each others stuff? Both you and Peter commented on how a measure of a good film is often whether it prompts interesting discussion afterwards (I wholeheartedly agree). Of course, it makes sense you'd both mention that, as you saw it together. But I just read the same sentiment in a John Krasinski interview two days ago: ""I love being an audience member when you come out of the theater and there's something to talk about." (WSJ), and in another review I read this weekend, although I can't track that one down. I'm sure its just a coincidence, and that's probably a common phrase in movie reviews that I'm just actively noticing now. What it really made me think about was your method of reviewing. Do you read other reviews, and if so, is it just as a film geek or are you looking for particular insights on writing style and analysis? Any favorite reviewers? Are you into academic film criticism at all? Do you have a standard criteria you rely on to rate the films, or a specific approach to analyzing a film? Or do you not think about this meta-analysis at all, and just watch, absorb, and write? Just curious. I really enjoy reading your reviews; they're definitely something I rely on to navigate what's 'must-see' for me. It's even to the point where I have a sense of what movies we'll disagree on (just to generalize, there are a few things you're a bit more of a fanboy about than I am, and a few girly movies that don't hold your attention that I like to indulge in). Hope that doesn't sound overly creepy, like a reader presuming to know you-- it's meant as a compliment & thank you. Anyways. When you're not in the middle of some whirlwind movie tour (again, jealous!), I think a post on your thoughts on reviewing would be interesting. Maybe I'm just a huge geek. But I think most of your readers are, right? Keep up the awesome let-us-live-vicariously-through-you commentary!
Haley on Sep 12, 2009
I love these guys, I love that they can go dark and serious and then laugh outloud dark... Im a big fan and own most of their movies... Now, "I found myself laughing out loud more in this than in Burn After Reading" excites the crap outta me since "BAR" literally put me to sleep three nights in a row!!! Ive since watched it a few times (gotta give the bros the benefit of the doubt) and I still dont think its all that funny..that being said, I dont hold it against them and it doesnt weaken their skill whatsoever..now how many directors/writers can you say that about? cant wait to see this!
Lando on Sep 12, 2009
Off topic: Alex, since you are here in my city, Toronto. Happen to have any connections for the Nikki Beach party?
Matthew on Sep 12, 2009
DoomCanoe on Sep 12, 2009
So, no Bruce Campbell in this?
David Banner on Sep 12, 2009
love most of the Coen films, although some of them have this... mmm... little unfinished detail that leaves you with this weird feeling. Take for instance the ending in both "No country for old men" or "The man who wasn't there". Brilliant films fot in the end is like "WTF!?" Also, I must admit: I didn't like AT ALL "Burn after reading". It's boring, pointless and most of the time, simply not funny (bt that's just me, maybe). So, considering this, the coin is in the air for "A serious man", but after seeing the trailer, my expectations are high.
leiner on Sep 13, 2009
Alex, as much as I enjoy the information you provide on this site, this was an awful, awful, awful review. Seriously. Boring, redundant, and you literally told us nothing about the film that we couldn't glean from the trailer. I appreciate the information you provide on occasion, but don't the Coens deserve a review that took longer than five minutes to write? By the way, think this film looks great.
stepnik on Sep 13, 2009
Leiner, Please give those three movies more tries, at least do to No Country and Burn After Reading. The endings are superb, maybe the dream sequence is a bit too much, but it doesnt bother me, it does add to the whole if you see it as a whole experience and I appreciated that they kept the last page of the book as it was. Enjoy the wordly honesty of Llewellyn Moss, the sherriffs quest for answers, the firm conviction of Carla Jean, the indifferrence and mechanic conviction of evil and its comfort in the world and its seemless belonging to it. It is just a beautiful movie. About Burn After Reading, watch it again, those CIA scenes make the movie so powerful. You say it is pointless, I say it is a moral story about the pointlessness of “important“ human endeavors. The end is for me magical and makes the whole quite satisfactory. I love also how they dont go on what happened in the very end with the characters following the rythm they were taking, they just tell it and close. I think it is genius.
Alex on Sep 13, 2009
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