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A Serious Man Review


RATING:
(4 STARS)

A Serious Man is the latest film from the masters of the unconventional—Joel and Ethan Coen—and it certainly lives up to expectations (if there are such things as expectations from these two). Here, they take a turn toward more personal filmmaking and tackle questions that relate to God, fate, and consequence. Of course, their trademarks—eccentric characters, impeccable period settings, the darkest of humor, and sharp twists of plot—are front and center, once again. And, like No Country for Old Men, this one features an ending that will have everyone in deep thought long after the credits stop rolling.

Poor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). His wife is leaving him for his friend, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). He has problems with the neighbors. His brother (Richard Kind) lives on the couch and is always locking himself in the bathroom. His son smokes pot and cares about nothing except having a clear television reception. A failing student in his physics class tries to bribe him. Someone is anonymously submitting negative letters to the tenure committee at his university. And his debt is growing rapidly. As much as he tries to be a respected and serious man, his life is rapidly and becoming absurd, and he doesn’t know what, if anything, he can do about it.

A Serious Man is Larry’s story from beginning to end. When we are introduced to him, he is undergoing medical tests, but all seems well on the surface. It doesn’t take long, however, before we realize he is losing his grip. Larry doesn’t know why these awful things are happening to him, and he searches everywhere for an answer. And just when it seems like things might get better, The Coens change everything on a dime.

It’s hard to get very specific about this film because the ending makes clear so much of what precedes it. That said, it’s also a real head-scratcher and leaves things open-ended in a way only the Coens can (for God’s sake they won an Oscar for one of the most open-ended films of all time).

Veteran stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry and is just as responsible as the Coens are for the success of the film. Stuhlbarg embues Larry with just the right amount of vulnerability to make us pity the character. Without the ability to understand and feel for him, the film never would have worked. Supporting work is ably provided by Fred Melamed as Sy, Richard Kind as Uncle Arthur, and Sari Lennick as Larry’s wife, Judith. After the A-list get-together that was Burn After Reading, it’s an interesting and somewhat refreshing change of pace to recognize exactly zero people on the screen. And it seems like the casting was done with great thought. Everyone looks and plays his or her part perfectly.

A Serious Man is full of Jewish folklore and tradition. The film opens with a ten-minute prologue in Yiddish that, when all is said and done, perplexes as much as it explains. Larry’s son Danny attends Hebrew school and is preparing for his bar mitzfah (one of the most inspired scenes in the movie is the bar mitzfah told through the eyes of an incredibly stoned Danny). And a rabbi tells Larry the story of a “goy” (non-Jewish person) who has the Hebrew words for “help me” written on the inside of his teeth. All of this could potentially confuse the Gentile viewer, but the Coens subtly and successfully make this material feel monumentally important. Is it? Who the hell knows, but it’s certainly attention-grabbing.

Overall, the film is a terrific success. It is something to be watched and rewatched. It’s challenging, but quite rewarding and incredibly thought-provoking, and it ranks right up there with Fargo and No Country for Old Men on the list of truly great Coen Brothers pictures.

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