A Serious Man: *** (out of 4)

For the first time in my movie-reviewing career, I feel like I'm in over my head. As I came out of A Serious Man, I felt like I had been to an art gallery. I had seen many things, and while I recognize that I had liked those things, I had no idea why I liked them. Worse, I didn't like all of those things, at least not as much as I felt like I ought to have! In the past, I've been able to paper over this response by, well, not writing anything. Now that I'm writing reviews, I have to display that lack of sophistication to the world.

Well, here goes.

A Serious Man tells two stories: a prologue, regarding an 18th century Russian Jewish couple and a visitor to their house, and the main story, telling of the trials a Jewish professor in the late 1960s. The first part sets the tone: dark. The second part adds absurd despair, mixed liberally with a black humor and topped off with a dollop of pathos. Together, the Coen brothers end up with something painful, profound, and pitch-black humor.

The cinematography is spectacular, especially considering the relatively mundane setting. The soundtrack - mostly lots of Jefferson Airplane - was well-used and thought out. The characters were well-realized and, though perhaps somewhat stereotypical, quite authentic. The community seemed both large and manageable; everybody had a challenge, and they responded to those challenges in ways both reasonable and absurd. The acting was excellent (and full of unknown actors - always a plus!). And I think I even picked up a few pieces of Jewish culture along the way.

But the problem, from my point of view, is that this was also an Art Film, in the most dangerous manner. Coming out of the theatre, I could not identify how the elements of the prologue presaged what came later. I had laughed in many places where the rest of the audience had not, but I couldn't tell if this was my own dark sense of humor or me just understanding the difficult humor. In general, while I didn't exactly feel like I was lost during the film, I also didn't feel like I understood it all. I came out of this movie wondering if, perhaps, I should take some film-studies classes. Perhaps that sums the movie up as well as anything.

Don't go in expecting a straight-forward Coen brothers comedy; this ain't it. Burn After Reading, The Big Lebowski, The Hudsucker Proxy, are all much more "comedic" comedies; even Fargo doesn't hold a candle to the darkness of this movie. Perhaps this is some kind of cross between the darkness of No Country for Old Men and the comedy of Fargo; I'm not sure if I can think of anything else comparable. But still, it's worth seeing if you recognized any of the movies I just listed (and if you're reading my reviews, you probably do.)

***. It probably would have been higher if I had understood; and, perhaps my estimation of the movie will go up as I allow myself to read the reviews of others.