Since winning a slew of awards for No Country for Old Men, including four Academy Awards, the Coen brothers have settled into a more restrained mode of storytelling in their recent fare. Their latest film, A Serious Man, is representative of this more mature style, although it does betray flashes of their previous comedic features.
A Serious Man chronicles the life of Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics teacher at an unnamed university in Minnesota. Although a fairly well-respected intellectual, Gopnik's life begins to take a turn for the worst: his wife informs him that she's in love with someone else, his unemployed mathematician brother runs afoul of the law and a Korean student blackmails him for a passing grade. With nowhere else to turn, Larry seeks out the advice of several local rabbis.
The film boasts one large strength, which also serves as its principle weakness. It has no real narrative structure -- the standard three-act format doesn't really apply. Larry's visits to the rabbis provide a nice way to chop the film up into sections, but once his life hits the skids early in the film, the Coens maintain an even keel. While this allows events to take audience members by surprise, it also might lend itself to audiences fidgeting while waiting for something to happen. That the film lacks a traditional ending probably isn't surprising given the open-ended nature of No Country for Old Men, but cynics might criticize A Serious Man for stopping rather than ending.
The acting is strong across the board, noteworthy due to the complete absence of recognizable faces. Richard Kind has done guest work on television Â-- including Scrubs -- and Big Bang Theory's Simon Helberg has a cameo, but neither are really movie stars. That said, the casting decisions were superb. Michael Stuhlbarg is impressive as Larry Gopnik, filling the character with likability and utter bewilderment at what has befallen him. The rest of the cast disappear into their roles, particularly Fred Melamed as the soft-spoken man Larry's wife leaves him for.
Despite the story's shortcomings, A Serious Man is particularly well-crafted. The Coens re-team with many of their behind-the-scenes collaborators from No Country for Old Men -- notably cinematographer Roger Deakins -- and the result is a fantastic looking film. Deakins frames each shot like a photo and experiments throughout with perspective to great effect. It may be a testament to how slow the film is that, at times, audience members are acutely aware of technical details like framing and sound mixing.
Since winning a slew of awards, the Coens have attempted to return to their roots with more brooding, introspective films. Unfortunately for audiences, on occasion this approach leads to scenes that are, in a word, dull. While A Serious Man boasts many clever exchanges and really funny moments, the lack of forward motion may make audiences wonder why the creators of hilarious films like Fargo and The Big Lebowski got so damn serious all of a sudden.