Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolff, Adam Arkin, Jessica McManus

MPAA Rating: R (for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence)

Running Time: 1:45

Release Date: 10/2/09 (limited); 10/9/09 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik

The structure of A Serious Man is an extended joke. It's an hour and half or so of build up with the universe delivering the punch line in the last couple of minutes.

Like all shaggy dog stories, the punch line matters much less than the journey to it. For the Coen brothers, the yarn of theoretical physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is an existential one, along the same lines as their Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn't There. Just like those films, Joel and Ethan Coen show how good they are at collecting their esoteric ideas and putting them on display in a meaningful way.

There are two layers to the joke. One is the increasing progression of how bad things get for Larry, and the other is Larry's quest to discover meaning behind all the paradoxes and Catch-22s in which he finds himself.

Larry's life seems ordinary on the surface. He's probably about to get tenure at the university where he teaches. He has a wife Judith (Sari Lennick) who stays at home, a daughter (Jessica McManus) who's very concerned with her appearance (she's often in a robe) and hanging out with friends, and a son (Aaron Wolff) who smokes pot with his buddies, owes the local bully twenty bucks, and is approaching his Bar Mitzvah. His brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is also living at the house, almost always in the bathroom draining a cyst.

Soon after we meet Larry, though, things turn awry. Judith wants a traditional Jewish divorce so she can marry their widower neighbor Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Sy really wants to be buddy-buddy and talk with Larry about the whole situation. Judith and Sy think it best for everyone concerned if Larry moves out with Arthur to a nearby motel.

At work, an upstart student tries to have Larry change his midterm grade and just happens to leave an envelope full of money at Larry's desk. If Larry tells about the bribe, the kid will deny it, but if he doesn't change the grade, the kid will tell the school he accepted a bribe. Larry, of course, has no intention of changing the grade, but rumors start to circulate with the tenure board about the possibility of an ethical issue.

The Coens keep one-upping Larry's misery, throwing him deeper and deeper into no-win scenarios. Despite the impending divorce and forcing him out of the house, Judith still wants Larry involved in the home life, his daughter still wants money, and his son desperately needs him to fix the antenna so he can watch "F Troop."

What happens later to further trouble Larry becomes increasingly bizarre (but within the confines of the situation at hand), and all the while, everyone—his divorce lawyer, his sexy, pot-smoking neighbor, his friends from synagogue—tells him he needs to visit with the rabbi to seek counsel.

Of course, the rabbis have more pressing matters on their hands, leading him to eventually see three in increasing order of importance in the community. Each one has their own advice, and all of it makes as much sense to Larry as the concepts of Schrödinger's cat or Heisenberg uncertainty principle make to his students.

The first (Simon Helberg) is convinced Larry simply needs a new perspective, which he discusses in terms of the metaphor of the synagogue's parking lot. It seems like a decent idea until the rabbi hears of all of Larry's troubles (That he still holds his ground is pretty standup of him: "Look at the parking lot!").

The second (George Wyner) has his own shaggy dog story about a dentist who discovers a message written on the back of a patient's teeth, and Larry becomes stuck on the meaning of the story. Meanwhile, the third rabbi (Alan Mandell) is far too busy to see anyone, although later on, he uses a Jefferson Airplane song to advice Larry's son.

So what is the lesson of the Coens' existential comedy? How does the quirky prologue about a couple arguing the possible existence of a dybbuk (a wandering spirit in Jewish folklore) that's about to arrive at their home have to do with Larry's escalating predicaments?

Are there really any lessons? Is the prologue itself just another joke that has nothing to do with Larry?

A Serious Man seems content with allowing the characters to gain their own education from what the universe throws at them without hammering home anything specific, and for that, it's not only a successful yarn but also a thoughtful one.

Well, it does hammer home one point at the very end in the form of a visual pun. There's always a greater storm on the horizon that will make even the most difficult challenges of the past irrelevant.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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