A Serious Man

A Serious Man featured image

reviewed by Marc Glassman

A Serious Man
Ethan and Joel Coen, directors, writers & producers. Roger Deakins, cinematographer, Carter Burwell, music. Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg (Larry Gopnik), Richard Kind (Arthur Gopnik), Sari Lennick (Judith Gopnik), Fred Malamed (Sy Ableman), Aaron Woolf (Danny Gopnik), Jessica McManus (Sarah Gopnik), Adam Arkin (Don Milgram), George Wyner (Rabbi Nachter), Katherine Borowitz (Mimi Nudell), Fyvush Finkel (Dybbuk), Amy Landecker (Mrs. Samsky)

It’s not often that a Hollywood film—or even a big-budget indie one– tackles ethical issues. And it’s even rarer to marry ethics, a quirky sensibility and a critique of Judaism to a film that doesn’t even feature a famous character actor, let alone a star. The Coen Brothers can do it, of course, because, well, they’re the Coen Brothers. With hits like Fargo, The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men, even cold-hearted financiers are willing to pony up the necessary cash to see if the filmmaking siblings have come up with another success.

A Serious Man may not result in boffo box-office figures but it may become a cult hit, a Jewish Lebowski. You don’t laugh, though; mainly your lips part for a yelp or a giggle or a mustered groan. Which is entirely appropriate to this film’s dark, attenuated sensibility.

Larry Gopnik has it bad and that ain’t good. It’s 1970 and the earnest physics professor is finding it difficult to cope with his life. His wife Judith wants to divorce him for another man, his soon-to-be Bar Mitzvahed son Danny constantly fights with sister Sarah and Larry’s harried and sick brother Arthur is camped out on the couch, unable to deal with the world.

The Gopniks are Jewish, in a suburban ghetto replete with overstuffed furniture and bric a brac, where human interaction is shoehorned into overwhelmingly similar living rooms and kitchens in ranch-style houses. Larry and his family are as neurotic as the young Woody Allen but without his pleasing antidote of comic assaults and deprecations. They suffer—and for what?

While fixing the aerial on the roof so his son can watch the laughably bad F-Troop sit-com without visual fuzz, Larry sees something remarkably fresh: his neighbour Mrs. Samsky sunbathing in the nude, secure in the knowledge that no one can see her behind the four tall walls that enclose her backyard. When this sad sack of a man goes to talk to her, they smoke pot—it is 1970!—but any attempt at intimacy is foiled by Arthur, who picks that moment to be busted by the cops for illegal gambling activities.

Oy! What can this good man do? Go to Rabbis, of course, for an answer. But if you’re Jewish you know that a question is only answered by another question and religious pronouncements are often mystical paradoxes. No Christian self-help here. Just more riddles.

So Larry hangs on, for his son’s Bar Mitzvah and to find out whether he’ll get tenure at the university despite a hideous letter-writing campaign designed to ruin his barely extant reputation. And to deal with Sy, his wife Judith’s inamorata, who tries to thwart his rival through platitudes, embraces and expressions of bonhomie.

A Serious Man begins with a tale, acted out in Yiddish, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It ends with an Apocalypse—or perhaps intimations of one. This film is not only “serious fun,” it also resurrects the brilliant music of a great Psychedelic Era band, the Jefferson Airplane, and their best record, Surrealistic Pillow. Who knew that Somebody to Love was a religious song? Only the Coen Bros.—and “thanks, Hashem!,” they’ve let the world know, too.

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