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Review: A Serious Man

The Coens find no country for A Serious Man
By PETER KEOUGH  |  October 9, 2009
4.0 4.0 Stars

 

A Serious Man | Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen | with Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, and Adam Arkin | Focus Features | 105 minutes
The Coen Brothers have put the sad back in sadism. Beginning with their first feature, Blood Simple (1984), the two jolly misanthropes have taken delight in submitting their creations to ingenious, hilarious, and unavoidable sufferings and torment. Their attitude has been Olympian, at best. With their astounding, infuriating, and profoundly comic A SeriousMan, however, they are taking the human condition a little more seriously. In this film — for the first time, perhaps (possible exception: Barton Fink) — they suggest that they, too, might be butts of the cosmic joke of life.

Their gentle, stoic protagonist, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, who resembles a younger Eugene Levy), could well be standing in for his creators. Like them, he's an intellectual (a physics professor) and a native of a "Jewish community in an unnamed Midwestern suburb." His pain is intimate and solipsistic and perhaps self-inflicted. Unlike the blunt ordeals endured by the goys in Fargo and No Country for Old Men, his Kafka-esque nightmare evokes the metaphysical Rube Goldberg device of Charley Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York. And whereas the brothers' previous films veer toward Greek tragedy, this time it's Biblical. Near the end of the movie, the camera passes over a picture of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. More to the point, maybe, would be one of God testing Job.

A Serious Man begins, after a gnomic prologue, with what might be the inverse of the beginning of David Lynch's Blue Velvet. The camera passes through the auditory canal of Larry's teenage son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), into an earpiece, along a wire, and through a radio playing Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody To Love" (it's 1967) before exiting into a droning Hebrew class. Meanwhile, somewhere else in this pastel-bungalowed suburb, Danny's father exclaims to his comatose physics class, "Here's the exciting part!", as he scrawls out the mathematics behind the mystery of whether Schrödinger's cat is dead or alive.

Such uncertainty reigns in Larry's life, and it really bugs him, even more than the dependable verities of injustice, treachery, pettiness, guilt, and anxiety imposed on him by family members, friends, neighbors, people at work, and the incomprehensible will of Hashem. His wife (Sari Lennick) is cheating on him, he's up for tenure, his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is draining a cyst, the Columbia Record Club is dunning him. At times, the film is as much a Jobean ordeal for the viewer as it is for Larry. We get it, the man is a schlemazel — must Danny call him on the phone while he's weeping in the office of his lawyer (Adam Arkin) to complain that the reception for F Troop is still fuzzy?

But every time the black humor and the caricatures become overbearing, the Coens take off on an inexplicable, mind-blowing, brutally funny tangent. Like the rabbi's story about Sussman and the goy's teeth. Or the ending. Or, for that matter, that prologue. It's a shtetl-set folk tale reminiscent of the Yiddish cinema of the 1930s that involves a dybbuk and an unsurprisingly ambiguous ending. What does it mean? As Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner) says, does it matter? Hashem might have the last laugh on us all, but until that happens, the Coen Brothers are in on the joke.

Related: October lite, Quiet men, Not so elementary, More more >
  Topics: Reviews , Entertainment, Movies, David Lynch,  More more >
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ARTICLES BY PETER KEOUGH
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   REVIEW: A SERIOUS MAN  |  October 09, 2009
    The Coen Brothers have put the sad back in sadism.
  •   REVIEW: SURROGATES  |  September 30, 2009
    Some day in the future — or is it right now? — people will be replaced by surrogate robots, superhuman automatons who live out big-screen fantasies while their hosts, with their greasy hair and bad skin, sit back in wired-up La-Z-Boys.
  •   REVIEW: WHIP IT  |  September 30, 2009
    Add a dash of the sad beauty contests and kooky, dysfunctional family of Little Miss Sunshine to a helping of the bogus hipness and overexposed star of Juno and whip it good and you get an idea of why Drew Barrymore's directorial debut falls flat as a sappy soufflé.
  •   REVIEW: ZOMBIELAND  |  October 05, 2009
    Does it mean anything that Jesse Eisenberg's follow-up to Adventureland is Zombieland and that it also includes a theme park?
  •   REVIEW: CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY  |  September 29, 2009
    In his new film about the Wall Street meltdown, Michael Moore — surprise! — denounces capitalism and its exploitation of the working class. Not that he's above doing a little exploiting himself.

 See all articles by: PETER KEOUGH

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