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Josh Reviews A Serious Man

This, my friends, is how you follow up a Best Picture Oscar win.

After No Country For Old Men, the Coen Brothers released the wonderfully bizarre Burn After Reading (read my review here). Less than a year later, they have bestowed upon us the even more wonderful (and even more bizarre) new film, A Serious Man.

Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a mild-mannered Jewish physics professor living in Minnesota. Despite (or perhaps because of?) his seemingly gentle, meek nature, trouble upon trouble piles atop poor Larry’s head, as if he were an American suburban reincarnation of the prophet Job. Larry’s son is constantly getting into trouble in Hebrew school, and seems less interested in preparing for his Bar Mitzvah than he is in watching TV and listening to records. His daughter rushes out of the house whenever she can. His wife has informed him that she is having an affair with Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed, creating one of the most stand-out characters I’ve seen on the big screen recently in just a few scenes). Larry’s brother, Arthur (Richard Kind, a familiar face from Spin City and Curb Your Enthusiasm), who might be a genius or who might be completely mad but who definitely has problems, has moved into the house with them. Meanwhile, Larry is up for consideration for tenure, but the head of the university board has informed him that someone has started writing them letters that are enormously critical of his teaching abilities. Also, a Korean student failing his class has attempted to bribe him for a passing grade and becomes belligerent when Larry tries to turn down the offer of money.

The Coens (ably assisted by terrific performances across the board from their cast) do a masterful job in creating a slow-burning feeling of powerful dread. It seems clear from the opening frames that things are not going to go well for this Jewish suburban family.  Although this is a very funny film, it is also one that does not shy away from examining the small miseries that can accumulate in a modern life. In addition to the Coens and their actors, credit must also go to the haunting score by Carter Burwell. (There’s a short theme of several notes on a piano that recurs throughout the film that I found to be at once poignant and also evocative of coming doom.)

The narrative is strengthened by the Coens’ care in ensuring that the troubles that beset Larry aren’t over-wrought typical “movie” problems, but more mundane (though no less crushing) sorts.  I particularly appreciated the fact that (small spoiler ahead) a scene that shows us that Larry has engaged in a fling with the gorgeous pot-smoking housewife-next-door didn’t actually happen — it was just a dream.  (Otherwise I’d have felt that I was in The Ice Storm.)

The film is filled with fantastic vignettes that have stayed with me long after the end credits rolled. The “goy’s teeth” story might rival the commode story (from Reservoir Dogs) in terms of mid-movie show-stopping hilarity.

I also loved the opening scene in the shtetl. What a fantastically unusual way to open a movie! It is true that, after the movie ended, I had to spend some time pondering what the heck that sequence had to do with the rest of the film, but I must say that I LOVED that the Coens didn’t feel the need to spoon-feed us those answers.  Plus, I think that if you paid attention to the themes of the film, the connection of that introductory vignette to the rest of the story is fairly clear. (My conclusion: it was an illustration of the “it’s a matter of perspective” differences seen so often in the rest of the film.  To the wife, the elderly visitor is clearly a dybbuk, and to the husband he’s just an old guy. Neither one can find any way to comprehend the other’s point of view.)

As for that ending — boy, I guess the Coens really love ending their films about 15-20 minutes before you expect them to!!  Though this wasn’t quite as much of a fuck-you ending as that of No Country For Old Men (whose sudden ending really sunk what had until then been a phenomenal film for me), but I was equally shocked here when the lights came up.  HOWEVER, while I was startled that the movie was just OVER all of a sudden, I do think that the ending (with both literal and metaphorical tornadoes of further trouble on the way for the Gopniks) did seem fitting for the narrative of the film as a whole (which I did NOT think was the case with No Country.)

I should also mention, if you haven’t figured this out yet, that A Serious Man is an extraordinarily Jewish film. Apparently, the Coens have based much of the story on their own childhoods. To whatever degree that may be, this film is steeped in the experience of growing up Jewish and middle class in suburban America. I mentioned above the Coen’s willingness to avoid spoon-feeding their audience (with a clear explanation of the opening sequence). They similarly demonstrate a brave determination not to over-explain (or, frankly, just to explain even once) most of the Jewish terms and phrases (Hashem, dubbuk, tikkun olam, get, etc. etc.) that pepper the film. I thought this worked wonderfully, as it allowed me to fully enter this world the Coens were creating (or maybe I should say re-creating, from their youth in the ‘60s) without getting bogged down in boring explanatory exposition, though I wonder whether a non-Jewish audience member would have trouble following all of the details.

But speaking for myself, I absolutely adored A Serious Man. It is another triumph from the Coen Brothers, and the type of unique, I’ve-never-seen-a-film-quite-like-it idiosyncratic work that I’m always on the look-out for when I go see a movie. Wonderful. It may not have gotten a very wide release, but do check it out if it’s still playing at a theatre near you.

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