A Serious Man

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A Serious Man
A man standing on the roof of a house, looking off to his left. His hands are on his hips. Behind him is a TV aerial.
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJoel Coen
Ethan Coen
Produced by
  • Ethan Coen
  • Joel Coen
Written by
  • Ethan Coen
  • Joel Coen
Starring
Music byCarter Burwell
CinematographyRoger Deakins
Editing byRoderick Jaynes
Studio
Distributed byFocus Features
Release dates
  • October 2, 2009 (2009-10-02)
Running time106 minutes
CountryUnited States
Language
Budget$7 million
Box office$31,312,437[1]
 
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A Serious Man
A man standing on the roof of a house, looking off to his left. His hands are on his hips. Behind him is a TV aerial.
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJoel Coen
Ethan Coen
Produced by
  • Ethan Coen
  • Joel Coen
Written by
  • Ethan Coen
  • Joel Coen
Starring
Music byCarter Burwell
CinematographyRoger Deakins
Editing byRoderick Jaynes
Studio
Distributed byFocus Features
Release dates
  • October 2, 2009 (2009-10-02)
Running time106 minutes
CountryUnited States
Language
Budget$7 million
Box office$31,312,437[1]

A Serious Man is a 2009 dark comedy[2] produced, edited, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. The film stars Michael Stuhlbarg as a Minnesota Jewish man whose life crumbles both professionally and personally, leading him to questions about his faith. The film attracted a positive critical response, including a Golden Globe nomination for Stuhlbarg, a place on both the American Film Institute's and National Board of Review's Top 10 Film Lists of 2009, and a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Plot[edit]

In a Polish shtetl in the early 20th century, a Jewish man tells his wife that he was helped on his way home by Traitle Groshkover, whom he has invited in for soup. She objects, saying Groshkover is dead, and that the visitor must be a dybbuk. Groshkover (Fyvush Finkel) arrives and laughs off the accusation, but she plunges an icepick into his chest. Bleeding, he exits into the snowy night.

In Minnesota in 1967,[3] Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a professor of physics whose wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), abruptly informs him that she needs a get (a Jewish divorce document) so she can marry widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed).

Three other people live with Larry and Judith. Their son Danny (Aaron Wolff) owes twenty dollars for marijuana to an intimidating Hebrew school classmate, but the bill is hidden in a transistor radio since confiscated by his teacher. Daughter Sarah is always washing her hair. Larry's brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), sleeps on the couch and spends his free time filling a notebook with what he calls a "probability map of the universe".

Larry faces an impending vote on his application for tenure, and his department head (Ari Hoptman) lets slip that anonymous letters have urged the committee to deny him. Clive Park, a student worried about losing his scholarship, meets with Larry in his office to argue he should not fail the class. After he leaves, Larry finds an envelope stuffed with cash. When Larry attempts to return it, Clive's father comes to his house to threaten to sue Larry either for defamation if Larry accuses Clive of bribery, or for keeping the money if he does not give him a passing grade.

At the insistence of Judith and Sy, Larry and Arthur move into a nearby motel. Judith has emptied the couple's bank accounts, leaving Larry penniless, so he enlists the services of a sympathetic divorce attorney (Adam Arkin). Larry learns Arthur faces charges of solicitation and sodomy, despite his previous attendance at "mixers".

To cope with his streak of unfortunate circumstances, Larry turns to his Jewish faith. The two rabbis he consults (Simon Helberg and George Wyner) are by turns obtuse, oblivious and obscure, and his synagogue's senior rabbi is never available. Larry's mental state reaches a breaking point when he and Sy are involved in seemingly simultaneous, but separate, car crashes. Larry is unharmed, but Sy is killed. At Judith's insistence, Larry pays for Sy's funeral.

Larry is proud and moved by Danny's bar mitzvah, unaware of his son's distractions from nerves and marijuana. During the service, Judith apologizes to Larry for all the recent trouble and informs him that Sy liked him so much that he even wrote letters to the tenure committee. Danny meets with the senior rabbi in his office, where the old man – who has had Danny's transistor radio in his desk – quotes almost verbatim from the Jefferson Airplane song "Somebody to Love". He returns the radio and counsels Danny to "be a good boy".

Larry's department head compliments him on Danny's bar mitzvah and hints that he will win tenure. Receiving a large bill from Arthur's criminal lawyer, Larry decides to pass Clive, whereupon Larry's doctor calls, asking to see him immediately about the results of a chest X-ray; at the same moment, Danny's teacher struggles to open the emergency shelter as a massive tornado bears down on the school.

Cast[edit]

Open auditions for the roles of Danny and Sarah were held on May 4, 2008, at the Sabes Jewish Community Center in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, one of the scheduled shooting locations. Open auditions for the role of Sarah were also held in June 2008 in Chicago, Illinois.[4][5]

Production[edit]

Considerable attention was paid to the setting; it was important to the Coens to find a neighborhood of original-looking suburban rambler homes as they would have appeared in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, in the late 1960s. Locations were scouted in nearby communities Edina, Richfield, Brooklyn Center, and Hopkins[6] before a suitable location was found in Bloomington.[7] The look of the film is partly based on the Brad Zellar book Suburban World: The Norling Photographs, a collection of photographs of Bloomington in the 1950s and 60s.[8]

Longtime collaborator Roger Deakins rejoined the Coen brothers as cinematographer, following his absence from Burn After Reading. This was his tenth film with the Coen brothers.[9] Costume designer Mary Zophres returned for her ninth collaboration with the directors.[9]

The "folk tale" that serves as the prologue was written by the Coen brothers. They claim the story has no function except to set the proper tone for what follows.[4] Roger Ebert suggests that its married couple may have brought a curse on Larry by inviting the dybbuk (Traitle Groshkover) across their threshold.[10] A portrait of Groshkover is glimpsed on the wall inside Rabbi Marshak's office later in the film.

Location filming began on September 8, 2008, in Minnesota. An office scene was shot at Normandale Community College in Bloomington. The film also used a set built in the school's library, as well as small sections of the second floor science building hallway. The synagogue is the B'nai Emet Synagogue in St. Louis Park. The Coen brothers also shot some scenes in St. Olaf College's old science building because of its similar period architecture.[11][12] Scenes were also shot at the Minneapolis legal offices of Meshbesher & Spence, the name of whose founder and president, Ronald I. Meshbesher, is mentioned as the criminal lawyer recommended to Larry in the film.[13] Filming wrapped on November 6, 2008, after 44 days, ahead of schedule and within budget.[14]

Despite many accurate recreations of the look and feel of period fashions, automobiles, and culture of 1967 Minnesota, there remain some anachronisms, including references to two albums, Carlos Santana's Abraxas and Creedence Clearwater Revival's Cosmo's Factory, that were released in 1970.

The ending credits contain an Easter egg: "No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture."

Soundtrack[edit]

The film's original music was composed by Carter Burwell (who, until then, had composed the music for all the Coens' movies except O Brother, Where Art Thou?). The soundtrack included several songs from the Jefferson Airplane album Surrealistic Pillow, including "Somebody to Love", "Today", "Comin' Back to Me", and "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds". The soundtrack also featured "Machine Gun" from the Jimi Hendrix live album Band of Gypsys, and some pieces of Yiddish music including Mark Warshawsky's "Dem Milner's Treren" performed by Sidor Belarsky.

Release[edit]

The film had a limited release on October 2, 2009, in the United States. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival[15] on September 12, 2009.[16]

A Serious Man was released on DVD and Blu-ray in North America on February 9, 2010.

Box office performance[edit]

FilmRelease dateBox office revenueBox office rankingBudgetReference
United StatesUnited StatesInternationalWorldwideAll time United StatesAll time worldwide
A Serious ManOctober 2009$9,228,768$22,201,566$31,430,334#3,818Unknown$7,000,000[17][18]

As of February 10, 2010, it has had worldwide gross earnings of $31,312,437[1]

Critical reception[edit]

FilmRotten TomatoesMetacriticEntertainment Weekly
A Serious Man89% (194 reviews)[19]79/100 (35 reviews)[20]A-[21]

It has received mostly positive reviews from critics, with an aggregate score of 89% from Rotten Tomatoes, based on 194 reviews.[22] Roger Ebert, of the Chicago Sun-Times, rated the film four out of four stars, feeling that it "bears every mark of a labor of love,"[10] and Variety's Todd McCarthy commented that "the Coens' filmmaking skills are sharply attentive," and that A Serious Man is "the kind of picture you get to make after you've won an Oscar".[23] Claudia Puig of USA Today writes, "A Serious Man is a wonderfully odd, bleakly comic and thoroughly engrossing film. Underlying the grim humor are serious questions about faith, family, mortality and misfortune."[24] Time critic Richard Corliss describes it as "disquieting" and "haunting."[25] Christy Lemire called it "the Coens' most thoughtful and personal film" and gave it three-and-a-half stars out of four.[26]

The St. Petersburg Times's Steve Persall wrote that the main character would remind Bible readers of the Book of Job, "but even Job eventually caught a break".[27] The Coens themselves stated that the "germ" of the story was a rabbi from their adolescence: a "mysterious figure" who had a private conversation with each student at the conclusion of their religious education.[28] The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern disliked what he saw as misanthropy in the film, saying that "...their caricatures range from dislikable through despicable, with not a smidgeon of humanity to redeem them."[29] David Denby from The New Yorker enjoyed the look and feel of the film, but found fault with the script and characterization: "A Serious Man, like Burn After Reading, is in their bleak, black, belittling mode, and it's hell to sit through... As a piece of movie-making craft, A Serious Man is fascinating; in every other way, it's intolerable."[30]

Awards[edit]

Richard Kind holds the Robert Altman Award given to the film at the Independent Spirit Awards in Los Angeles

Stuhlbarg was awarded the Chaplin Virtuoso Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and nominated for Best Actor in the 67th Annual Golden Globe Awards. Stuhlbarg, Kind, Melamed and Lennick were nominated for a Gotham Award for Best Performance by an Ensemble Cast. Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, casting directors Ellen Chenoweth and Rachel Tenner, along with actors Kind, Lennick, Melamed, Stuhlbarg, Wolff and McManus were awarded the Robert Altman Spirit Award by Film Independent for Excellence in Collaborative Cinematic Achievement by Directors, Casting Directors and an Ensemble Cast. Deakins received the Best Cinematography awards at both the 2009 Hollywood Awards and the 2009 San Francisco Film Critics Circle Awards, as well as the Nikola Tesla Award at the Satellite Awards and the Best Cinematography award at the Independent Spirit Awards. A Serious Man was nominated for an MPSE Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing: Dialogue and ADR in a Feature Film.

The Coen brothers were awarded Best Original Screenplay at the 2009 National Board of Review Awards and Best Original Screenplay from the National Society of Film Critics Awards 2009, and have been nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Original Screenplay and the BAFTA for Best Original Screenplay. A Serious Man was nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay in the Broadcast Film Critics Association's 15th Annual Critics' Choice Awards, and by the Boston Society of Film Critics, Best Picture by the Chicago Film Critics Association. The film was listed as one of the ten best films of 2009 by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, the American Film Institute, the Satellite Awards and the Southeastern Film Critics Association Awards.

A Serious Man was nominated for Best Original Screenplay (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen) and Best Picture at the 82nd Academy Awards. BBC News called it "one of the less talked about nominees" for Best Picture; they also noted that lead actor Stuhlbarg received his invitation to the ceremony at the last minute.[31]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b "A Serious Man". Box Office Mojo. Archived from the original on January 17, 2010. Retrieved February 10, 2010. 
  2. ^ Booker, M. Keith (2011). Historical Dictionary of American Cinema. Scarecrow Press. p. 75. 
  3. ^ "Interview: Joel and Ethan Coen On A Serious Man". cinemablend.com. Retrieved January 28, 2010. 
  4. ^ a b c d yanayak (August 15, 2009). "A Serious Man Production Notes". Film in Focus (Focus Features). p. 9. Retrieved December 1, 2009. "We thought a little self-contained story would be an appropriate introduction for this movie. Since we didn’t know any suitable Yiddish folk tales, we made one up." 
  5. ^ "Coens cast about to fill three roles in 'A Serious Man'". Minneapolis Star Tribune. April 25, 2008. Retrieved February 18, 2010. 
  6. ^ Campbell, Tim (September 28, 2007). "Coen brothers to get 'Serious' in Minnesota". Star Tribune. Archived from the original on November 3, 2009. Retrieved November 22, 2009. 
  7. ^ Covert, Colin (September 6, 2008). "In Twin Cities, Coen brothers shoot from heart". Star Tribune. Retrieved November 22, 2009. 
  8. ^ "Serious' film was nostalgic pleasure for Coen brothers". Twincities.com. Retrieved November 4, 2009. 
  9. ^ a b "Production Begins on the Coen's A Serious Man". Comingsoon.net. Archived from the original on September 9, 2008. Retrieved September 9, 2008. 
  10. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (October 7, 2009). "A Serious Man". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on December 7, 2009. Retrieved November 22, 2009. 
  11. ^ Henke, David (August 19, 2008). "Coen brothers will use St. Olaf for movie". Northfield News. Retrieved December 1, 2009. 
  12. ^ Gonnerman, David (October 9, 2008). "St. Olaf gets 'Serious'". St. Olaf College News. Retrieved December 1, 2009. 
  13. ^ C.J. (October 2, 2009). "Meshbesher's star turn". Minneapolis Star Tribune (StarTribune.com). Retrieved October 1, 2009. 
  14. ^ "It's a wrap! Coen brothers' latest film is in the can". StarTribune.com. Archived from the original on December 10, 2008. Retrieved November 11, 2008. 
  15. ^ Evans, Ian (2009). "A Serious Man premiere at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival". DigitalHit.com. Retrieved December 12, 2009. 
  16. ^ "Oscar-winning Coens head home with "A Serious Man"". Reuters. September 13, 2009. Retrieved September 14, 2009. 
  17. ^ Franklin, Garth (October 2, 2009). "A Serious Man | Film". Dark Horizons. Retrieved 2013-03-08. 
  18. ^ "A Serious Man (2009)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved August 19, 2011. 
  19. ^ "A Serious Man". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved August 18, 2011. 
  20. ^ "A Serious Man". Metacritic. CBS. Retrieved August 18, 2011. 
  21. ^ "A Serious Man". Entertainment Weekly. October 1, 2009. Retrieved August 18, 2011. 
  22. ^ "A Serious Man (2009)". Rotten Tomatoes. Archived from the original on February 7, 2010. Retrieved December 29, 2009. 
  23. ^ McCarthy, Todd (September 11, 2009). "A Serious Man". Variety. Archived from the original on October 7, 2009. Retrieved November 22, 2009. 
  24. ^ Puig, Claudia (October 4, 2009). "'A Serious Man' is a seriously good departure for Coens". USA Today. Retrieved October 2, 2009. 
  25. ^ Corliss, Richard (September 12, 2009). "A Serious Man: The Coen Brothers' Jewish Question". TIME. Archived from the original on September 15, 2009. Retrieved October 2, 2009. 
  26. ^ "Seriously funny troubles abound in `Serious Man'". Associated Press. Retrieved October 2, 2009. [dead link]
  27. ^ Persall, Steve (November 1, 2009). "Coen brothers' 'A Serious Man' has troubles of Job without uplift". St. Petersburg Times. Archived from the original on December 4, 2009. Retrieved November 22, 2009. 
  28. ^ "Coen Bros. On Wet Horses, Kid Stars: It's A Wild West". NPR. January 12, 2011. Retrieved January 29, 2011. 
  29. ^ Morgenstern, Joe (October 2, 2009). "'A Serious Man'". Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on October 4, 2009. Retrieved October 2, 2009. 
  30. ^ Denby, David. "Gods and Victims: "A Serious Man" and "Capitalism: A Love Story".". The New Yorker. Retrieved October 2, 2009. 
  31. ^ Tim Masters (March 7, 2010). "Cast of Coen Brothers comedy mull Oscar chances". BBC News. Retrieved March 7, 2010. 

External links[edit]