Well, well, well... The Oscars are a month away and, slowly but surely, more of this year's Best Picture nominees are starting to appear on DVD. This week sees the release of Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man. You'd think after the success of No Country for Old Men that the Coens would be able to get any film they wanted into wide release. Not so, apparently, as A Serious Man never made it to most theaters in its initial run. Now that it's in the running for Best Picture, it'll likely show up on more multiplex screens, but why do that when you could just pick up the DVD or Blu-ray?
Speaking of which, how is it? Well, I'm here to tell you just that.
By the Coens' standards, A Serious Man is a relatively simple film. It tells the story of a Jewish physics professor named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose normal, simple life slowly starts falling apart. It starts when his wife informs him that she plans to divorce him and marry a family friend (Fred Melamed), and his troubles escalate as his brother (Richard Kind) becomes more of a nuisance, his children become more of a nuisance, and one of his students attempts to bribe him for grades.
Joel and Ethan Coen are never at a loss for the smart gag or a fun visual shot, and this film is no exception. They take their jabs at late 1960s culture, Jewish traditions that they no doubt experienced growing up, and the kind of domestic troubles that they've always tackled in oddball ways. Like in many of their other films, characters interact as though they're from two completely different movies. It creates a fascinating dissonance between Larry (and the viewer) and the people around him. It's almost as though Larry has been dropped into an alternate reality in which his life has always been falling apart. This is key to the Coens' brand of humor; in some ways it's similar to the awkward relationships between characters on, say, The Office, but never goes for the obvious joke.
There are a number of twists and turns along Larry's search for meaning, but compared to films like The Man Who Wasn't There or Barton Fink, A Serious Man is pretty cut and dry. You could say that the film is sort of the Coens' version of the Old Testament story of Job, and there are indeed some elements of that, but the heart of the film lies more in simply taking life's hardships in stride rather than letting them weigh you down. Despite such an inspirational message, however, A Serious Man is a considerably dark film, and the Coens wouldn't have it any other way.
This is a film that isn't particularly enhanced by the hi-def transfer. The disc features Universal's standard "My Scenes" feature, which allows to you bookmark your favorite scenes, but other than that, there's nothing here that's any different from the standard DVD. The film's blu-ray transfer does indeed look sharp and vibrant, but this is a film where story takes precedent over visual design (not to slight the Coen Bros.' direction or Roger Deakins' excellent cinematography). It's not the kind of film with which you'd show of your home theater system, though it's definitely worthy of your blu-ray player, I guess is what I'm saying.
THE MOVIE: 8/10 - This is vintage Coen Bros., and while it's arguable whether or not it's their best work, it definitely ranks among their most interesting. The mix of humor and, well, seriousness isn't everyone's cup of tea, but if you're familiar with the Coens' other films, you should at least get a kick out of this one.
THE BLU-RAY: 7/10 - The film looks and sounds great, though it's not outstanding as far as blu-ray transfers go. Simply put, it doesn't disappoint.
THE FEATURES: 5/10 - Coen DVDs are notorious for being scarce on the features, and A Serious Man is no exception. Three featurettes are all you get here. "Becoming Serious", your standard 15-minute making-of feature. "Creating 1967" is just as long, detailing the look of the film. Finally, "Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys" is exactly what it sounds like: a brief series of definitions of Hebrew vernacular for the uninitiated. Blu-ray and DVD share the same set of features.
OVERALL: 7/10 - A Serious Man is among Joel and Ethan Coen's best and the blu-ray transfer is impressive, though the extras are scant. There's no reason not to pick this up, though if you have your doubts or don't have a great HD system, I'd say save yourself a few bucks and pick up the standard DVD instead. I guarantee you'll enjoy the film just as much.