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A Serious Man is Seriously Funny

Published October 2, 2009 in Movie Reviews
By Fred Topel | Image property of respective holders
A Serious ManA Serious Man
A Serious Man is seriously funny. Ha! No, really, I seriously liked this movie. Oh, I did it again. Wait a minute. It’s called A Serious Man but it’s a comedy? I’m sorry, I just got that. Whoa.

Review: A Serious Man

The Coen Brothers manage to take familiar elements from their other comedies to make an original pastiche. There’s no one Coen Brothers movie that was the same, but certainly the quirky talk and the quirky mundane incidents come from Fargo. Yet it’s got the sneaky, slow building visual narrative of Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men. There are even some surreal moments, though not quite Lebowski level. They also still like to pull the random violent deaths, but man, they get me every time.

It’s really bold to set a movie in the world of Jewish tradition. The people who understand this world will love it, and The Coens can do whatever they want for as few people as they want. I only know what a get is from TV. They do keep explaining it for gentiles to follow along and it is ripe for the absurdity and pain they explore. You feel for the main character despite his resigned inaction. The others around him are horrible people acting polite. Everyone is selfish about their own drama, and that’s real. They’re so sanctimonious. .

As mundane as the world of a physics professor and his Bar Mitzvah kid are, it’s fascinating: the student trying to negotiate grades, the kid sneaking around his radio, the brother dominating the bathroom, the TV on the fritz, the persistent phone calls demanding his attention. It’s all carefully shot with deliberate moves, close ups on specific things. This is their wheelhouse but they know how to use it to create an overwhelming sense of tension, so it’s not slow. A lot happens and it escalates.

The faces in this movie are new to us yet they’re clearly professionals. It’s the difference between hiring professional actors who happen to be out of the spotlight, and stunt casting “regular people” who act like boring regulars. Then the Richard Kinds and Alan Arkins do their thing.

As funny as this sort of comedy of misfortune is, it’s spiritual too. There are still people worse off than this poor guy, and you’ve got to appreciate how well you have it, even at your worst.

Since Coen movies are so subjective, let me give you some context. Favorites: Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, Intolerable Cruelty, Blood Simple, No Country. In the minority on Fargo. Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Man Who Wasn’t There, kinda lost on me. Hate The Ladykillers but everything else is fine, even Hudsucker. So Serious Man falls on the high end of the middle, which I respect and enjoy.

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Fred Topel
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