Video Verdict: ‘A Serious Man,’ ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife,’ ‘Couples Retreat,’ ‘The Stepfather’

Michael Stuhlbarg plays a troubled college professor in the dark comedy “A Serious Man.” Writers-directors Joel and Ethan Coen were nominated for an Oscar for the movie’s screenplay, and the feature is one of 10 contenders in this year’s best picture race.

This week’s crop of home video releases includes a romantic science-fiction film, a broad relationship comedy, a paint-by-numbers horror flick and a contender for best picture at this year’s Academy Awards.

 

A Serious Man
3 stars (out of four)
Rated R for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence
Focus Features
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen have long made films that challenge audiences, and “A Serious Man” is no exception. The movie – nominated for best picture and best original screenplay in this year’s Oscar race – focuses on the rapidly unraveling life of a Jewish physics professor named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). Although he is a decent person, his teen children are out of control, his wife (Sari Lennick) wants to leave him for another man (Fred Melaed) and his brother (Richard Kind) is living with him indefinitely.

Amidst that chaos, Larry is nervously waiting a decision on tenure at his university, and a student has offered him a huge bribe. It’s the sort of film that has so much going on that it’s nearly impossible to digest in a single sitting, but that doesn’t mean a one-time viewing is dissatisfying. To the contrary, viewers can delight in Stuhlbarg’s outstanding portrayal of a lost man doing his best to keep his head above water. Future viewings, I suspect, will only add to the experience, as the Coens have a lot of layers here.

It is worth noting that “A Serious Man” is not a straightforward comedy. It requires the audience to work to get the most out of it, meaning it’s not the sort of thing you plop in the DVD player for mindless entertainment. Also, because the story is drenched in Jewish culture, it will likely play better for those who have at least a minor knowledge of the faith.

Extras include a couple making-of bits and a feature on the Hebrew and Yiddish languages.

 

The Time Traveler’s Wife
3 stars
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, brief disturbing images, nudity and sexuality
New Line
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

Take too long to examine the plotting in “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” and you run the risk of becoming frustrated, angry or just plain loopy. After all, that’s the way time travel movies work. Viewers are presented with all sorts of intriguing possibilities that eat away at the back of the mind, most of them relating to questions about one’s ability to travel back in time and change the future.

Although changing history may seem appealing, Henry De Tamble (Eric Bana) – the lead character in “The Time Traveler’s Wife” – explains that his time travelling exploits don’t allow him to alter anything. In fact, Henry’s situation is extremely frustrating. He is a man destined to randomly fade away to other times without the desire to do so or the comfort of his clothing. Once he arrives, naked, he is forced to make the best of the situation without knowing how long he will stay.

Fortunately for Henry, he has one constant: an artist named Clare Abshire (Rachel McAdams). He first meets her when he is an older man and she is a child but, because Henry is a time traveler, they are often the same age, and they are destined to become friends and lovers. The older incarnations of Henry know this, but the younger versions do not, which makes it all deliciously convoluted.

“The Time Traveler’s Wife” is based on the bestselling novel by Audrey Niffenegger, and one could surely pick away at the plotting, arguing the merits of her version of time travel versus those more traditionally presented on the screen. To do so, however, is an exercise in frustration. I learned long ago that it’s best to allow a filmmaker his/her premise and go from there. Do that with “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and you may be surprised at how compelling and romantic the work actually is.

While the film is steeped in science fiction, its broader purpose is to examine issues of separation, loss and love and to convince viewers to ask themselves, “What would I say if I could meet myself?” It’s fascinating, and it’s difficult to think of better actors to take the journey with. Bana and McAdams are always wonderful on screen and together they make you believe that love really can transcend time.

DVD extras are limited to a feature on the making of the film.

 

Couples Retreat
1½ stars
Rated PG-13 for sexual content and language
Universal
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

A comedy starring Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau and Jason Bateman may seem like a sure thing, but “Couples Retreat” is about as far from the mark as a film can get. Director Peter Billingsley (yes, the kid from “A Christmas Story”) may have gathered a great cast, but the gags he successfully executes are spaced further apart than the scoring in a soccer match. And, unlike soccer, there’s little excitement leading up to those scores.

The plotting centers on Jason and Cynthia (Bateman and Kristen Bell), a too-serious couple battling marital problems. One night, they gather friends to explain that they want to visit a tropical couples resort to work on their issues. Trouble is, they can only afford to go if they round up enough pals to qualify for the group rate. Reluctantly three other couples – Dave and Ronnie (Vaughn and Malin Akerman), Joey and Lucy (Favreau and Kristin Davis) and Shane and Trudy (Faizon Love and Kali Hawk) – accompany them, but only to lay on the beaches and soak up the sun. Alas, they arrive at the island to learn that couples counseling is required.

There may be a funny movie in this premise, but Billingsley and company never come close to discovering it, and it’s hard to know where the fault lies. Billingsley is inexperienced (this is his first feature film), but the weak screenplay was written by Vaughn, Favreau and Dana Fox.

Billingsley? Favreau? Vaughn? All of the above? Blame who you will, but it won’t change the fact that this retreat offers no solace at all.

Extra features include a collection of deleted scenes, a gag reel, a bit about filming in Bora Bora and an audio commentary by Vaughn and Billingsley.

 

The Stepfather
2½ stars
Unrated
Sony
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

There are movies made for artistic satisfaction and there are those made for a quick paycheck. “The Stepfather” is clearly the latter. You can tell not only because it is a remake of the like-titled 1987 film, but because it doesn’t even attempt originality within its genre.

“The Stepfather” is a straightforward, slash-’em-up thriller that starts and ends in the same manner as countless predecessors, and it seems almost proud of that fact. Maybe that’s good because the movie maintains a fair share of entertainment value despite its strict adherence to genre guidelines.

Things are better than they might have been thanks to the work of Dylan Walsh, who plays a psychotic serial killer who finds widowed or divorced women, becomes part of their family and then kills everyone. To pull this off, Walsh, whose character is called David Harris through most of the film, is charming and nurturing one moment and brutally sadistic the next.

Most of “The Stepfather” is focused on David’s stalking of a divorcee named Susan Harding (Sela Ward). Everything is going just as planned until Susan’s teen son, Michael (Penn Badgley), returns from military school shocked to see his mother with another man.

When “The Stepfather” is working, it’s because viewers know more than the characters that they’re watching. On the surface, Michael’s showdowns with David seem spurred by jealousy and paranoia, but the audience knows better. For awhile, its fun to watch the sparring match and, although regular moviegoers will have a good idea where things are headed from the outset, director Nelson McCormick makes the presentation just suspenseful enough to qualify the film as a guilty pleasure.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include two making-of featurettes, a gag reel and an audio commentary with Badgley, Walsh and McCormick.

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Hurricane Season”: Inspirational story about a Louisiana high school basketball coach (Forrest Whitaker) who brings players from rival schools together in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Isaiah Washington (“Grey’s Anatomy”), Bow Wow (“The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift”), rapper Lil Wayne, Taraji P. Henson (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) and Bonnie Hunt (“Cheaper by the Dozen”) also star.

“Good Hair”: Chris Rock’s humorous documentary on the ins and outs of the beauty industry, as seen from a black perspective. Among other things, the film considers the lengths people go to in hopes of obtaining the perfect look.

“Serious Moonlight”: Meg Ryan and Timothy Hutton play a couple whose marital problems are amplified when they’re forced to deal with a home break in. Kristin Bell and Justin Long also star.

“Gary Unmarried” – The Complete First Season: Newly divorced dad Gary Brooks (Jay Mohr) learns to navigate single life after a 15-year marriage. The first 20 episodes of this series are packed onto a 3-DVD set.

“The Life & Times of Tim” – The Complete First Season: Animated HBO series about an average guy who wants to get ahead in life but can’t seem to do it. The dark comedy was created by Steve Dildarian, who co-wrote Budweiser’s “Lizards” TV campaign. Check it out before the new season begins Feb. 19.

“Army Wives” – The Complete Third Season: Lifetime TV series focused on four Army wives – Denise (Catherine Bell), Claudia Joy (Kim Delaney), Pamela (Sally Pressman) and Roxy (Brigid Brannagh) – and one Army husband, Roland (Sterling K. Brown). The plotting considers everything from deployment to infidelity and anger management. This 5-disc set allows you to get caught up on the drama before the next season premiers April 11.

Lionsgate action films on Blu-ray: A nice collection of adventure flicks from the 1980s and 1990s are making their Blu-ray debut courtesy of Lionsgate. Titles are: “The Running Man” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, “Hard Rain” with Morgan Freeman and Christian Slater, “The Phantom” with Billy Zane, and “Drop Zone” featuring Wesley Snipes.

“King Lear – The Historic Omnibus Production”: Orson Welles stars as King Lear in a 1953 theatrical production staged for the TV show “Omnibus.” The presentation on this release is newly restored and remastered.

“JAG” – The Final Season: This TV legal drama about justice, as doled out in the U.S. military, ran for 10 seasons before wrapping. Fans can complete their DVD collection with this release.

 

Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications.  E-mail him at Forrest@ForrestHartman.com

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