Saturday, February 20, 2010


The Cohen Brothers never cease to confound the movie going public. Soon after their epic and critically praised No Country For Old Men the writing/producing/directing superpower returned with a quiet and very personal film.

The movie, titled A Serious Man, tells the tale of Larry Gopnik a man whose life is completely falling apart. His wife is leaving him for a close friend, his brother is insane, his son is a pothead, his daughter hates him and his job could be in jeopardy. What starts as a simple story about how much can a man really take soon becomes increasingly complicated in a way only the Cohen Brothers could pull off.

The story evolves into something that questions what is life all about, what is God to us really and is organized religion (in this case Judaism) something that works for or against us. It’s clear that this was a labor of love for the Cohen Brothers, a movie they had to make.

The film is set early in the 20th century and is one of the more stark films in the Cohen’s career. The colors are muted, the sets very cold and boring and the people very ordinary on the surface, which is the subtext to the film. Everything that happens in A Serious Man happens just below the surface and the Cohen’s execute it with incredible precision.

The movie is carried completely by Michael Stuhlbarg (Larry Gopnik) who plays his part with such restraint that any small thing he does out of the ordinary seems like an explosion of emotion. A gesture, a look, a word, it all feels so powerful because it removes the veneer of the character if only for an instant. The Cohen’s do that through out the movie, giving us sudden glimpses into what lies beneath a character’s façade before sewing the hole back up.

In lesser hands this could have been boring or pretentious but A Serious Man instead draws you into the story by making you feel like part of this bizarre community. By the midway point of the movie everybody is very familiar and you’ve grown really interested in what will happen to them. It’s a lot like a family, you may not like them or even want to spend time with them but they do fascinate you.

The other aspect that really knocked me out with A Serious Man was the script and it’s focus on Jewish life. In the past when The Cohen Brothers focused on a specific group it felt a little too smug (Fargo) or way too over the top (Burn After Reading) but A Serious Man balances respect for this group with the ability to dissect it’s flaws. I was also impressed at how the script managed to move quickly and even leave loose ends without feeling incomplete.

Characters brought in and then forgotten about fit nicely into the idea of all the people who come in and out of our lives on a daily basis. None of the characters or situations felt like a plot device, nothing played out just to get from one scene to the next. It sounds like a basic thing in screenwriting but you’d be surprised how many writers can’t pull it off.

If you like quiet movies that really focus on characters and prose then A Serious Man is something I recommend highly. This is much less flashy than most of the Cohen’s work but it’s also one of their best. Nothing is easy in A Serious Man, from the relationships to the less than cheerful ending but it makes you think. You think about your own relationships, your own ideas of God, religion and humanity. When was the last time a film did that while being endlessly entertaining?