Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a nice guy with problems. His wife wants a sudden divorce, his brother is in trouble with the law for sodomy, his neighbors are racist, he gets into a car accident, he might lose his job, students are trying to bribe him, he’s broke, and the young Rabbi he seeks advice from compares it all to a parking lot. Harsh.
Larry’s a nice guy though, playing everything straight and never showing his anger. He lets his brother take the couch while Larry sleeps on a fold-out cot. Larry willingly leaves his own home to sleep in the motel while his wife and her new fiancee take over. This is a faith-filled man though, constantly seeking guidance from those within the Jewish community, and yet no one helps. They don’t have the answers.
This is all darkly funny, a bit about his son less worried about his dad seeking a divorce attorney than the fact that “F Troop” is fuzzy is hysterical. Serious Man is also sorrowful, a movie about a guy who can’t catch a break, and everything crumbles around him. It’s all set in the ’60s, the dazzling attention to detail immeasurably convincing, adding a sense of realism to a story that begins with a rather confusing fable. That never goes anywhere, maybe setting up the faith or the language (it’s all Yiddish), while the rest of the movie is all Larry.
Well, that’s not true. We do follow Danny (Aaron Wolff), his son, on a series of equally distressing decisions. He loses his prized transistor radio in class, taken away with $20 shoved into the pocket. He owes it to a neighborhood kid for some pot, yet another issue plaguing this family.
A Serious Man seems to end on disaster, or at least that’s what it looks like. This is after all a Coen Brothers movie, so take it as you will. Larry seems to finally make a mistake, giving into all of the pressure, losing his faith in that things will be okay, and panics. You can see the indecision on Stuhlbarg’s face, a great bit of acting, as he changes one simple letter in his notes. That’s all it takes before his faith seems to be affirmed via nature, or maybe it’s just coincidence. Either way, this is yet another either brilliant or baffling ending from these co-directors, but that fact that you think about it long after is a sure sign it had some effect.
This is a really great looking movie, the lightly grained film stock recreating the gloss of the period beautifully. Universal’s AVC encode does nothing wrong on a technical level, the grain resolved faultlessly and anomalies don’t even come into play in the digital transition.
In fact, the film meets every criteria for eye candy, remaining clear, clean, bright, and detailed. The images makes you appreciate the attention to detail, from the thickness of the clothing to rough carpeting. Everything has a clearly defined texture that makes the stylings visible. Fine object definition is outstanding, from the exterior of a church (each brick visible) to the interior of a grocery store produce department (every veggie is refined). That only becomes increasingly true when the camera zooms in, facial definition absolutely pure. Hair is resolved beautifully, and pores can be counted, if that’s the type of thing you do.
Sharpness is consistent, this aside from simulated drug highs where the lens focus is squarely centered and the edges diffused. Black levels are outstanding, many a scene taking place in under lit conditions. Larry wakes up due to nightmares, the room containing almost no light. It’s impressive enough that discernible detail remains, but so do the black levels. They keep their rich, depth-filled qualities regardless of the conditions. Those scenes elsewhere, from the bright offices, hold a firm contrast, not an ounce of bloom aside from light streaming in through the windows.
Colors carry many distinct palettes, at times cool while Larry is at work, and typically warm within the home. Flesh tones remain firm regardless, never veering unnaturally orange or deathly cold. Bright objects, much like their detail, are loaded with saturation, giving them some pop and dimensionality. Clothes are brightly saturated, and the grass that becomes a plot point is a beautiful green.
The sound design here is subdued, given a rather static focus to replicate the quaint mindset Larry carries with him wherever he goes. That makes those moments where it picks up, from a subtle heartbeat in the subwoofer or Yiddish chants, a pleasant break.
The sound design is fine for Larry’s somewhat flat, mundane yet stressful life. There’s not much ambiance or heavy activity. Everyone even seems to talk louder than he does except when he’s giving class. There, a nice echo reverberates around the room. The final shots of the movie involve a powerful rumble, revealing what would be a spoiler, but nonetheless it’s one heck of a room-shaking event that doesn’t over step any boundaries. It’s a great send off to this quaint DTS-HD effort.
Becoming Serious is the expected making-of piece, where even the Coen’s can’t seem to fully explain the opening. Creating 1967 focuses on the set design and costumes, along with the dedication to accuracy. Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys is a short piece that translates the various terminology. Universal also tosses in some BD-Live access.