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Culture » Film Reviews

A Serious Man

Schmucks Happen: Coen Brothers tap their youth to further challenge audiences.


It's hard to know sometimes whether the Coen brothers are ... well, not exactly pulling our collective leg, because it's pretty clear that they're authentically earnest with all their films, even the goofy onesmaybe even more so with the goofy ones. But are they actually daring us, with each new film, to keep going along with them? Are they trying to push us and their art so far that we'll eventually just give up, throw up our hands in frustration and say, "Bah!"?

If that's what they want, they're gonna have to try a lot harder, because they still haven't succeeded here. A Serious Man could be a serious challenge to many a filmgoer, even those who look for more than exploding robots and emo vampires from their flicks. It has no stars; a brief cameo from Adam Arkin aside, character actor Richard Kind will be the most familiar face in any substantial role. It's more Jewishin a nation only 2 percent Jewish, and a world only .2 percent Jewishthan almost any other film could ever be called "Christian." It's more philosophical than most moviegoers will have any patience for. And if ever a film had a point, this one's is, "Life is pointless, and so is this movie. Oh, and if God exists, he's a bastard who is, at best, ignoring us, and at worst, is actively messing with us. Enjoy!"

For this, we go to the movies?

Well, yeah. True lovers of film as something to provoke thought and stimulate emotion in ways beyond mere visceral reaction will thrill to A Serious Man. This is cinema so un-classifiable that even thinking about how to categorize it will lead you down a dozen different and conflicting tangents from which to consider it, none of which are contradictory and all of which are wonderfully surprising. In places, the film is droll but melancholy; in others it's hilarious yet heartbreaking. In all, it's ironic but sincere. We could even call it post-snark, as if the Coens are using the posture of sarcasm and satire that has been the dominant outlook of thoughtful films for the last decade or more, and finally made us understand that, look, they're not kidding. They've got serious questions and serious concerns, and they'd like some damned answers from the management, even though they know, somewhere deep down that doesn't want to acknowledge it, that there are no answers to be had, and probably no management in charge.

They express this most modern of angstthis could be, attitudinally, the first movie of the second decade of the 21st centuryis through their new Job, physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), who, in 1967 Minneapolis, finds himself under metaphysical attack on all sides. His wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), wants a divorce. His brother, Arthur (Kind), is leeching off his hospitality. His hoped-for, upcoming tenure at the university is threatened. His teen kids, Danny and Sarah (Aaron Wolff and Jessica McManus) ignore him. His sexy neighbor, Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker), tempts him. Everywhere he turns, poor Larry is besieged; New York theater actor Stuhlbarg is so utterly sympathetic as Larry, so yearning for relief that you cannot help but ache for him.

This totally original creation of Joel and Ethan Coen is semi-autobiographical, distilling the ethos and atmosphere of their Midwestern childhood in an intellectual Jewish community in the late 1960sor so they've said, and there's no reason to doubt them. What they may not realize is that, right here, we may have the key to understanding the Coens' entire oeuvre. The way the boys highlight Larry's pain and his quest for help is so bursting with ridiculous pathos that the whole endeavor becomes elevated and noble, preposterous and inconsequential, all at once. You think you've got troubles? Larry is getting harassing phone calls from the Columbia House Record Club, demanding money for albums he never ordered! And his doctor is calling about those troubling X-rays. And the three rabbis Larry seeks out have bupkis to comfort him. Life sucks, God doesn't care about you, and there's no reason for anything that happens. Might as well get used to it.

Hopeful? Actually, it kinda is. I'm sure there are jokes and nuances I didn't get because I've never studied Torah and have never been terrorized by a rabbi who tells useless parables in the mistaken belief that this would make my troubles disappear. But at least now I get Barton Fink. I think ...



Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Amy Landecker
Rated R