It's 1967 in the American Midwest when physics professor Larry Gopnick's wife leaves him for an insufferable colleague, his troublesome brother Arthur (Richard Kind, TV's "Spin City," "The Visitor") moves onto his couch, his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) becomes problematic at school, his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) steals money from his wallet to save for a nose job and someone has started a letter writing campaign to deep-six Larry's opportunity for tenure. With the whole world against him, Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg, Tony nominated for "The Pillowman") turns to three different rabbis to learn how to become accepted as "A Serious Man."
Writer/editor/directors Joel and Ethan Coen ("The Big Lebowski," "No Country for Old Men") began making films by taking Hollywood genres and twisting them with their own, off kilter sensibilities. With "A Serious Man," we see the first obviously autobiographical references as it is set in the time, place and religion of their youth and it is one of their very best. The Coens are going for the whole enchilada here - man's search for meaning, the existence of God, pattern and randomness in the Universe, and the essential solitude of the human condition. It's dark, dark thought provoking comedy, exquisitely cast with little known actors, that ends with a double-barreled wallop.
The film begins with a very funny flashback to a shtetl where Veval returns with his cart to tell his wife Dora that he met a man she knew who helped him when his wheel fell off, but Dora is not pleased as this man died three years ago. Convinced he is a Dybbuk, she stabs him when he arrives at Veval's invite. Have Larry's ancestors cursed him by this event? Do Dybbuks exist? ("Boston Public's" Harvey Lipschultz is so amusingly shifty as the potential Dybbuk one almost wishes they did.) The Coens set up many of their themes with this opening interlude, mostly notably the possibility that religion is based on myth.
When we first meet Larry, his daughter is complaining about Uncle Arthur's occupation of the Gopnick bathroom (his 'I'll be out in a minute's' go on for hours), where he uses a weird contraption to drain the sebaceous cyst on the back of his neck. Larry goes to the University where Arlen Finkle (Ari Hoptman) informs him that the Tenure Committee will be voting on his appointment on Wednesday and where his secretary gives him the first of many portentous messages from Dick Dutton of the Columbia Record Club. Then a Korean student, Clive Park (David Kang), comes in to protest his failing grade. When he leaves Larry finds an envelope filled with hundred dollar bills. This is no red herring.
This has to be some of the best writing of the Coens' career. Larry is a man trying to do good who always has bad things happen (conversely, his pot-smoking irresponsible son only need worry about getting beaten up by his supplier Mike Fagle (Jon Kaminski Jr.), and that situation appears to have a heaven sent solution at film's end). Whenever Larry musters up the gumption to challenge a tormentor, he's double-talked to death. He can't quite come to grips with neighbor Mr. Brandt (Peter Breitmayer, "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra"), a redneck who is encroaching on his lawn, so adds real estate consultation fees to his growing lawyer bill at the firm of his divorce lawyer (Adam Arkin, TV's "Chicago Hope," "Life"). In a nifty bit establishing prejudicial pecking order of the 1960's, though, when Clive's dad shows up in Larry's driveway to inform him that he'll sue for defamation if Larry reports his son's bribe which he pushes Larry to accept as the solution (what a circle!), Brandt asks Larry if 'this man is bothering you.' Wife Judith's (Sari Lennick, whose piercing pupils set in pale green irises make her otherworldly) lover Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed, "Hollywood Ending") keeps trying to hug Larry while the Coens work fateful dualities and two faces into the relationship. Another duality is shared with brother Arthur, a troubled man who very well might be a genius (he is unemployable, yet has written a physics book that is a map of the universe, whereas Larry teaches his students chaos formulas). Trinities are formed with trips to the rabbis, who in turns offer touchy-feely spiritual platitudes and non sequiturs about messages from God (the last, whom only son Danny sees, repeats back lyrics from his favorite Jefferson Airplane song). Then there are Larry's dreams, one of which is like an inverse of the end of the 'Night Gallery' 'The Escape Route' episode, another of which features temptress neighbor Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker, "Dan in Real Life"), wife of a traveling salesman and proponent of 'social freedoms.'
The Coens' direction of their actors reminded me of the time Werner Herzog reportedly hypnotized his cast for "Heart of Glass" - everyone but their lead, with the exception of Jessica McManus, is preternaturally calm (or stoned) and speaks in a quasi-reassuring monotone. Larry is the only one who occasionally begins to ascend into shrill tones as his life spirals out of control. Michael Stuhlbarg embodies every fear we can think of, making it impossible not to empathize with him. Behind those nebishy glasses and curly coif is a man staring out at the world, awoken from a day to day daze, who cannot believe what he sees. The faces the Coens have assembled tell stories in and of themselves. There is the accusatory righteousness Sari Lennick (and her hair and makeup team) bring to Judith, the nerdy body language of the junior Rabbi played by "Big Bang Theory's Howard Wolowitz, the bulldog mug of Breitmayer, the smooth apathetic reassurance in Arkin, the twinkling mischief (and cloven(!) beard) of Fyvush Finkel's shtetl visitor. Richard Kind is almost animalistic in his confused state of despair. Danny's little buddy played by Benjamin Portnoe gets a laugh by merely existing.
Technically the film is first rate from curiously humorous period production design (check out the orange to red hues of Samsky's lair, the antiseptic offices of a Minneapolis university, the rooftop aerial - a call to the sky above) to Carter Burwell's ("No Country for Old Men," "Twilight") plaintive harp and piano score (adorned by the Jewish religious recordings Danny plays in preparation for his bar mitzvah) to cinematography by the great Roger Deakins ("No Country for Old Men," "Revolutionary Road"). Costume, hair and makeup add sly character detail.
This movie is so densely rich, it cries out for repeat viewings. "A Serious Man" is one of the Coens' best, one of the year's best and features one of the most richly satisfying conclusions (the last scene's ambiguity inviting more than one interpretation) I've seen in some time.
Once again, the Coen brothers prove themselves two of the most eclectic filmmakers in America today. “A Serious Man” is about as far removed from, say, “No Country for Old Men” as can be. It is not as wacky as “Burn After Reading” but is certainly the brothers' cut on the Minnesota Jewish experience.
It is 1967 and Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is in for a world of hurt. His very troubled brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), has moved in and shows no signs of leaving the one-bathroom home. His wife, Judith, decides that she wants a ritual Jewish divorce, a get, so she can marry Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), one of Larry’s colleagues. Son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is smoking pot and being hounded by his dealer for owing him money. Daughter Sarah is concerned with two things: washing her hair and stealing enough money from Larry’s wallet to get a nose job.
Life is none too good, at least for Larry, in the Gopnik home but things get worse when a Korean scholarship student, Clive Park (David Kang), tries to bribe the mathematics professor for a passing grade and, failing that, threatens to sue him for defamation of character. Anonymous letters, accusing Larry of moral turpitude, begin to show up at the school’s tenure commission and Larry chance of a permanent job at the college may be in jeopardy. In addition, he is drowning in a sea of legal debt, what with the divorce, a lawsuit and a redneck neighbor encroaching onto his property.
All of these disasters are tightly and relentlessly weaved together by the Coens and the result is a very funny, satiric look into that particular Jewish community from the brothers’ creative minds. The ever-present Rabbis are there to comfort and advise their flock, but, then again, maybe not. The gags are all over the place and far too many to list. Let us just say that some will find “A Serious Man” hilarious and others will be offended. Hilarity and satiric wit win me over, though. I give it a B+.
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