A Serious Man -- Film Review

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TORONTO -- The always surprising Coen brothers have finally made a very serious movie with "A Serious Man." It's about God, man's place in the world and the meaning of life, so naturally it's one of their funnier movies. And because the year in question is 1967, the oracle of human wisdom and experience can be found in the lyrics of the immortal rock band Jefferson Airplane. Of course, it can.

"Serious Man" will do serious business among the Coens' many admirers but is not likely to expand the membership rolls greatly. In commercial terms, it's not as gripping as "No Country for Old Men," nor as knee-slapping hilarious as "Fargo" but rather a quiet sort of movie that finds sly humor in the quotidian lives and mind-sets of a Midwestern Jewish community about 40 years ago. So the movie narrows its audience to adults who take comedy seriously.

Returning to their childhood roots in the Midwest, Joel and Ethan Coen have created a modern-day Job, on whose head the writers-directors rain nothing but suffering and pain. And all Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a small university, wants to know is: What did I do?

Larry is a man of the American midcentury who believes that because he brings home the bacon -- though being Jewish it wouldn't be bacon, of course -- he deserves quiet and respect in his own house. But does he get any? Not on your life.

Wife Judith (Sari Lennick) informs him she has developed a friendship with one of their more pretentious acquaintances, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), and wants a divorce. Son Danny (Aaron Wolff) has developed bad relations with a class bully and a tendency to need more cash than is in his allowance.

Daughter Sarah's (Jessica McManus) ongoing relationship with the bathroom and her hair-washing needs have been seriously interrupted by the presence of Larry's lay-about brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), who must constantly drain a neck cyst.

Certainly, no one is the least concerned with Larry or his problems as he is tormented by a bill collector, an Asian student threatening a lawsuit, a letter-writing campaign against his getting tenure at the university and his neighbors. One neighbor is an All-American goy with a distinct dislike of Jews, and the other is a lonely, pot-smoking housewife who sunbathes in the nude.

As troubles mount, Larry constantly seeks advice -- legal advice, of course, but it's spiritual guidance he needs most: What do all these woes mean? The two rabbis who see him draw a blank. They tell useless anecdotes and helplessly mix metaphors, but they are of no more help than his friends or family.

An obsequious man who simply wants to maintain the status quo, Larry finds himself battling forces well beyond his control. Nothing in his life is what he thought it was. A rug has been yanked from under the physics teacher, and the only thing he is sure about is the Uncertainty Principle.

The Coens set this tale within a Jewish community, but the quest for understanding is universal and the impediments to knowledge have a familiar ring. The gurus are clueless, and "enlightenment" comes wrapped in mystical gauze.

Much of the film's humor derives from the utter blindness of everyone to Larry's angst. Everyone, especially his family, is thoroughly involved with themselves and the minutia that surrounds one's existence. Nobody sees a soul in anguish. All that is offered is solemn emptiness from the adults and blithe disregard from his children.

And the Coens, who are the gods of this movie, seem to enjoy tormenting the poor man. Right up until the end, in fact, when they say, "This is nothing. Wait'll you see what we have in store for you next."

"Serious Man" superbly captures the period details of a '60s Midwestern suburb, and cinematographer Roger Deakins is most adept at making it look spiritually bleak. Edited by the Coens under the name of Roderick Jaynes, the film has a wonderful rhythmic quality that underscores the brothers' own brand of deadpan humor.

The movie actually begins with a short story, all in Yiddish, set in a Polish shtetl a century earlier. It's about a dybbuk, or dead person's soul, and it bears no relationship with Larry's torments other than to establish an unforgiving world in which the spiritual remains maddeningly elusive.