By Bryce J. Renninger | Indiewire October 1, 2009 at 2:43AM
After its world premiere at Toronto, opening night at the New York Comedy Festival, and a secret screening at Fantastic Fest, the Coen Bros' new film a serious man comes to theaters tomorrow. "A Serious Man," set in 1967, follows Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor living in a Jewish neighborhood of a midwestern suburb, as he tries to come to term with his religion while his wife is set to leave him because his derelict brother won’t move out of the couple’s house. In a weekend that has Woodie Harrelson killing zombies, Michael Moore arresting capitalists, Ricky Gervais inventing lying, and roller derby girls teaching us the meaning of life, should we bother with the Coens' film?
Owen Glieberman, in Entertainment Weekly starts his review by saying, "Joel and Ethan Coen aren't generally accused of making personal films, and they have never dealt explicitly with their Jewish heritage. So 'A Serious Man,' their remarkable new movie, is very much a landmark in the Coen canon." He ends by saying, "A Serious Man isn't perfect — I'm still grappling with the powerfully offbeat ending — but it's cathartic to see the Coens finally show you a bit of who they are, or at least where they came from." In indieWIRE, Eric Kohn says the film "feels like a throwback to the 'Barton Fink' days of spectacularly meaningless symbolism, loads of gallows humor and genuine directorial finesse. Coen fans should rejoice: For these guys, more of the same basically means a return to form." Joshua Rothkopf, in Time Out New York also thinks of the other Coen & Coen film, saying, "These are not the caricatures of 'Barton Fink.' Though often funny, Larry unravels with enormous pathos, crying in his lawyer’s office and seeking a rabbinic wisdom that might not exist." In the final sentence of his review, Rothkopf insists, "See this film immediately."
In Todd McCarthy's assessment of the film within the current industry setting, he says "A Serious Man" is "the kind of picture you get to make after you've won an Oscar. A small film about being Jewish in a Midwestern suburb in 1967, this will be seen as a particularly personal project from Joel and Ethan Coen, and their talent for putting their characters through the wringer in peculiarly funny ways flourishes here on their home turf. With scarcely a familiar name in the entire cast, this Focus release will have to fly on the brothers' names alone, which in this case will mean OK biz in limited playoff in urban areas."
Slant's Fernando F. Croce is ambitious in his praise, "Are the Coens jokers who tread on despair, or tragedians with a penchant for death's-head humor? Either way, 'Serious Man' is their bleakest comedy. Its spiraling slapstick cruelty encompasses elements from both the lugubrious 'No Country for Old Men' and the antic 'Burn After Reading,' yet it easily outclasses both by endowing the put-upon puppet with a human dimension so that laughter is caught in our throats." In a quite polemic review from the Village Voice's Ella Taylor, in which she attributes most of the films accolades as a desire to be considered hip, she ends, "Is 'A Serious Man' a work of Jewish self-loathing? Hard to tell, if only because—aside from Fargo's Marge Gunderson, one of the great creations of American cinema—just about every character the Coens create is meant to affirm their own superiority." After calling the film "hell to sit through," the New Yorker's David Denby continues, "The Coens’ humor is distant, dry, and shrivelling, and they make the people in 'A Serious Man' so drably unappealing that you begin to wonder what kind of disgust the brothers are working off. Whatever indignities the Coens suffered as teens, they have hardly been hampered by those memories as adults."