The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Trailer of the Week: The Coen brothers' 'A Serious Man'

July 31, 2009 | 10:23 am


You don't really recognize any of the actors in the movie. You don't really know what time or place we're in. But it's wonderfully obvious from the entire gestalt of the new trailer for "A Serious Man" that we're in Coen Brothers Territory, where life is a slippery slope, full of tragicomic misadventures. We are only given the barest of hints of the film's story, which apparently unfolds in 1967, involving a Midwestern physics professor whose life is unraveling, with a wife who wants a divorce and a university that is denying him tenure.

But what the trailer offers us is an unsettling, yet somehow irresistibly mesmerizing tone -- something is amiss here, something that will unfold in a surprising, yet disturbing Coen brothers fashion.

What really makes the tone work so well isn't just the arresting images, but the way the trailer vehemently repeats the images: a man having his head slammed against a classroom blackboard; one car abruptly crashing into another in the middle of the street; a bearded rabbi gagging, as if he has something caught in his throat. (The repetition extends to the audio track, which allows the sound of the man's head hitting the blackboard to play over and over throughout the trailer.)

And who else writes this kind of dialogue?

A secretary (bored, gimlet eyed, looking up over her glasses): "The rabbi is busy."

    We have already seen her approach the rabbi in his study. He is at his desk, supremely unbusy.

The physics professor (sounding frantic):  "He didn't look busy!"

The secretary (decisively): "He's thinking."

It is a movie without a George Clooney or a Brad Pitt or even a Jeff Bridges. The professor is played by Michael Stuhlbarg, a theater actor best know for his Tony-nominated performance in "The Pillowman." The trailer's drawing card is -- pure and simple -- the Coen brothers, whose credits roll over the last 20 seconds of the trailer, reminding us of all their best work. It's nice to know that you can still sell a film with something besides a card that reads "A Michael Bay Film" or "From the producer of 'Space  Chimps.' " It's not due out until the beginning of October, but after having my appetite whetted by this ingenious trailer, I'm already eager to be first in line to see "A Serious Man." 

See for yourself:


Photo of Ethan (left) and Joel Coen by Stefano Paltera / Associated Press