'Serious Man' deserves serious look, despite wimpy extras

By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2010; 12:00 AM

Writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen have engaged in a long, cinematic love affair with protagonists shoved to the brinks of their sanity. From addled babynappers Hi and Edwina in "Raising Arizona" to Jeff Bridges's befuddled Dude in "The Big Lebowski" to, well, pretty much everyone in "Burn After Reading," the brothers Coen take pleasure in introducing us to individuals capable of reaching new heights of hysteria.

Add to that list Larry Gopnik, the Midwestern physics professor dealing with a massive midlife crisis brought on by blackmail, a fractured marriage, money troubles and constant badgering by the Columbia Record Club in "A Serious Man," out today on DVD ($29.98) and Blu-ray ($36.98) after recently receiving two Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture.

If the set-up of "A Serious Man" sounds like a recipe for absurdist comedy, it is. But the Coens, inspired here by their own upbringing in a Jewish enclave of Minnesota, also attempt to address weightier matters. As Gopnik (played with empathetic befuddlement by Michael Stuhlbarg) struggles to address his own problems, he also begins trying to solve life's bigger ones, turning to a series of rabbis in an attempt to wrap up his existential crisis in a nice, satisfying bow. He doesn't exactly find resolution; readers who have seen "A Serious Man" and remain puzzled over its swirling question mark of an ending also might suggest that the audience doesn't either. But the journey here is what's important, not the destination. "A Serious Man" is a rare mainstream movie, one that dares to ask challenging and intelligent questions about spirituality and morality, and has the guts to leave the answers up to us.

Too bad the special features on this release don't demonstrate that same sort of boldness. All we get here are three featurettes, including a brief, suitably engaging making-of piece ("Becoming Serious"), a behind-the-scenes look at the production design ("Creating 1967") and a toss-off DVD glossary ("Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys"). That last extra might be somewhat useful for those who aren't familiar with terms like Hashem ("God") or tsuris ("trouble"). But one assumes that even the world's biggest Gentile probably knows what a bar mitzvah is.

A more in-depth documentary about the Minneapolis suburb where the Coens grew up or even a smattering of deleted scenes would have made welcome additions to the mix. And even though the Coens are notorious for rarely recording audio commentaries to accompany their films, this DVD really cries out for one. Given the film's status as perhaps the brothers' most personal work to date, it would have been nice to hear more from the men who brought this "Man" into being.

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