A Serious Man

A Serious Man

Film review by: Witney Seibold

A Serious Man

Dybbuk: The dislocated soul of a dead person in Jewish lore. If you invite a dybbuk into your house, you and your family will be cursed.

The Coen Bros. new film, “A Serious Man” plays like a situation tragedy. Like a sitcom version of the book of Job. A slapstick rendition of Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm.” A Todd Solondz film without the bile and disgust. It’s a litany of suffering where you’ll laugh more often than wince. The film’s hero, Larry Gopnik, a Jewish mathematics professor living in a Minnesota suburb in 1968, is a decent fellow who does nothing wrong, and watches panicked as his life crumbles around him for no good reason.

I’m not Jewish, but one thing I understand about the Jewish faith is that there is a strong sense of karmic retribution involved: if you commit a misdeed, your father will be visited by misfortune. If you have no father, the misfortune visits you. You are encouraged to go to rabbis and not to shrinks.

“A Serious Man” is, I slowly and hesitantly admit, is one of the best films of the year. Despite is bleak subject matter, it’s a fascinating drama, and nearly hilarious at times. And it is without that obnoxiously whimsical ironic melancholy that infects hipster films of the day; it is a film made by experts operating within their own idiom. And, Hashem knows, the Coen Bros. have paid their dues time and time again. They are now making a personal film in their own idiom, and coming out way ahead.

The Coens have always worked better in tragedy than they have in comedy, and with “A Serious Man,” they are allowed to stretch in both directions.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a nebbishy mensch living in the Jewish portion of his Minnesota town. He gives lectures to his students about The Uncertainy Principle, and gets to say things like “If you study hard enough, you’ll know just that this can’t be understood.” Bad things start to happen to Larry, nothing of which is his fault. His wife (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for the annoying calm Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed). His son (Aaron Wolff) is about to have his bar mitzvah, but an only smoke weed and complain about TV reception. One of his students, a Korean named Clive (David Kang) is trying to blackmail him into a passing grade. He is up for tenure, but an associate keeps hinting that he may not get it. His wife’s gambling-addict brother (Richard Kind) is a deadbeat and is sleeping on his couch.

Larry is torn apart by these small trials which are adding up to a life of panic and chaos. He seeks aid from his local rabbis, but they are of little help. One is about 20 years old, another tells a vague story about a dentist finding a message on the back of a goyim’s teeth, and the third, the elder rabbi of his temple, is, well, he’s unavailable.

The heroes of Coen Bros. movies are rarely the instigators of action, instead occupying an almost Dickensian place of observation; all the action occurs to them and at them. Larry Gopnik is no exception. He feels trapped by his circumstances, and is unable (not unwilling, mind you) to commit any actions that may free him. That the film’s ending feels abrupt and apocalyptic is only in keeping with the spirit of the film.

Stuhlbarg is a theater actor who has been starring in TV and films for the last decade, but is not an actor you will recognize. After “A Serious Man,” you’ll keep an eye out for him. He is flustered soul, and his performance allows us to feel Larry’s pain without actually being stung.

Is Larry doomed? Did he commit sins? What in Hell is going on? “A Serious Man” is a comic journey of confusion and hurt, and is unique.

Published in: on October 12, 2009 at 3:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

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