October 15, 2009


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A Serious Man (R)
The Coen Brothers take the story of Job and set it in 1960s Minnesota in A Serious Man, a delightfully dark comedy.

Or, well, I can’t be sure this is a comedy. It’s funny, achingly funny in points, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that on its face would be called a comedy. Death, divorce, an ancient rabbi, a Midwestern dentist, Jefferson Airplane — these are weird, stark elements the Coens use to craft their evil little tale.

The movie starts with a strange little fable about a Jewish couple in a shtetl and the appearance of an old rabbi who might be a dybbuk — a kind of undead representative of evil. The woman deals with him decisively, for better or worse. In 1967, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg — remember his name at Oscar season) isn’t so quick to notice the darkness coming into his life.

His son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is preparing for his bar mitzvah but he’s also getting in trouble for sneaking a transistor radio at school and owing a bully money (for pot, no less, that he bought off the kid). His daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) seems to be perpetually angry — at her brother, at her mother, at her uncle Arthur (Richard Kind), who is spending all his time in the bathroom draining his cyst when she’s trying to get in to wash her hair (washing her hair is the main preoccupation of Sarah’s life, it seems). What exactly Arthur, Larry’s brother, does all day when he’s not in the bathroom is another mystery, one that we can sense, before we know, has trouble written all over it.

The first blow, however, is Judith (Sari Lennick), Larry’s wife. Out of the blue, it seems, she tells him she wants a divorce. She wants to be with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a fact that seems to make the situation exponentially worse.

Her domino pushes down others: Larry has to go live at the Jolly Roger, a depressing motel where he shares a room with Arthur. He has to get a lawyer — which he quickly finds he can’t afford. His attempts to get a rabbi to explain to him what it all means, what God wants him to understand, are foiled by the perplexing peacefulness of the young Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg), the confounding story of the middle-aged Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner) and the refusal of the ancient Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell) to talk to anybody.

Meanwhile, from the other direction, things seem to be going wrong at the university where Larry teaches math. One of his students, Clive Park (David Kang), a South Korean student, may or may not be attempting to bribe him, a bribe that the boy’s father both denies and tells Larry to take. The issue with Clive may threaten Larry’s tenure, a thing that is promised but seems always, tantalizingly, just about to happen.

Loss of wife, house, family, money, career security — what does it all mean, Larry wonders. Does he give in to the come-hither neighbor? Does he take the money? Does he continue to fix the antenna on the roof so his son can watch F-Troop even though he doesn’t live there?

Larry’s cry to God for answers isn’t just a figurative one, it’s literal. He talks about trying to figure out what God wants, has multiple conversations about it. It’s an odd thing to see in a film but one that makes A Serious Man stand out as something different, something not quite a standard story. Even if you don’t understand it, you’ll be responsible for it on your midterm, Larry tells his math students. It’s a wonderfully dark mission statement for life — even if you don’t understand, you’ll be responsible.

And the darkness is what A Serious Man does best. Larry’s is a life that is rather ordinary but with the menace turned way up. The neighbors, his family, his job, the Jolly Roger — all are filled with menace. Everything is waiting to trip Larry up and his decisions, his good intentions to be a serious man, aren’t enough to save him. Does that flavor of Old Testament doom sound like good eats to you? A Serious Man is your kind of comedy. A-

Rated R for language, drug use, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence. Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, A Serious Man is an hour and 45 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Focus Features.