A film review by Craig J. Koban February 24, 2010

Rank:  #20


2009, R, 104 mins.


Larry: Michael Stuhlbarg / Uncle Arthur: Richard Kind / Sy: Fred Melamed / Judith: Sari Lennick / Divorce lawyer: Adam Arkin / Dybbuk: Fyvush Finkel / 

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen


In English with occasional Yiddish and Hebrew.

The opening scene of the Coen Brothers' A SERIOUS MAN is as audacious as it is brilliant and darkly funny

It’s a prologue – performed completely in Yiddish – that appears to have zero correlation to the rest of the film that transpires after it, but inevitably does bare some influence near the end of the overall story.  It is set a century ago in Poland where an older couple has a brush with fate.  A Jewish man comes home after a very bleak snowstorm and informs his wife that he has invited an acquaintance of hers home for soup.   Unfortunately, the horrified wife informs her husband that the man in question has apparently died three years earlier and that, as a result, the guest must be a dybbuk (or demon).  The guest, of course, heartily laughs off the suggestion, but when the deeply suspicious wife stabs him in the heart – and he does not die or experience any outward pain – he leaves the home, heads back out into the blizzard, and is never heard from again.  The wife rather pitifully concludes that the dybbuk has forever cursed their family. 

The film then abruptly fast forwards to the present (its present being 1967 in a very non-specific Midwestern City – possibly the same Minnesota town that the Coens grew up in) where we begin to see the very slow and deliberate dissolve of a deeply trouble Jewish family.  The family is headed up by a very anxious, very paranoid, and very rattled physics professor that is trying to eek out a piece of the American dream for himself, only to see it completely unraveling before his eyes.  

The Coens have never professed to be “personal” filmmakers, and just a cursory look at their resumes shows their astounding variety and versatility that seems very far removed from their private lives (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and BURN AFTER READING, the pair’s last two films, could not be any different), but A SERIOUS MAN is clearly an effort on their part to directly deal with their Jewish upbringing.  They lived a middle-class existence in Minnesota and were the sons of Jewish academics, so it does not take a serious flight of fancy to see that A SERIOUS MAN is a personal film.  As a result, what emerges is arguably one of their most thoughtful dramedies: It revels in their impeccable attention to the filmmaking craft, not to mention that it thoroughly captures their offbeat predilection towards bleak, nihilistic humor that stings with a deeply subversive bit.  Beyond that, the film frames its oftentimes-acidic laughs with a touching commentary on the nature of morality, faith, and how difficult it is for some to cling to those values during times when personal calamities begin to suffocate you.  Part of the genius of A SERIOUS MAN is that it takes a late-1960’s Jewish family, presents them at their most ordinary and prosaic, and nonetheless makes them feel eccentrically off-kilter and colorful. 

Larry Gropnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, previously an unknown stage actor, and a remarkably assured film actor here) is finding his cozy lifestyle falling into a bottomless abyss by a series of personal problems that seem to be happening to him without provocation.  He’s sees himself as a decent, intelligent, and “serious” academic and family man, but there are forces at play in both his day job and home life that are wreaking havoc over him.  He is up for tenure at his University, but someone has been submitting negative letters to the committee in an effort to discredit him.  The Columbia Record Club continually calls him at his office to look into why he has not paid them in months.  Larry also has recently been the target of an Asian student that is unhappy that he received an F on his last test, not because he failed at every mathematical question, but because he needs a better grade to continue on with his scholarship.  When the discouraged student leaves the professor's office Larry finds an envelope full of money in what appears to be an attempted bribe. 

From there, it gets bleaker.  Larry's home life is a sham of biblical proportions: His son, Danny (a very funny and dry Aaron Wolff) is days away from his bar mitzvah, but seems only interested in F-troop, the family’s TV reception, listening to rock music in Hebrew school, and smoking pot.  Larry’s daughter, Sarah (Jessica Mcmanus) is a selfish and conceited brat that is only interested in getting a nose job.  Larry’s brother, Arthur (a delightfully kooky Richard Kind) is unemployed, homeless, and has been crashing at Larry’s home for a while.  He also has to drain his massive cyst on his back on a regular basis, much to the chagrin of his niece and nephew.  Oh…and he also likes to hang out a seedy bars, has a chronic gambling addiction, and is working on a probability map of the universe. 

Yes…it gets worse.  Larry’s is perpetually frightened by his trailer trashy, gun lovin’ neighbour and thinks he is a vengeful Jew hater.  Beyond that, his marriage has hit a total dead end when his wife, Judith (a sharp tongued Sari Lennick) has rather nonchalantly revealed to him that she is leaving him for another man that Larry thinks is a soft-spoken reptile of a adulterer, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed, harnessing an infuriatingly mannered and calm spoken intonation that instantly makes your skin crawl).  Larry is then kicked out of the house and is forced to take recluse at a cheap hotel, brother in tow, at the request of both his wife and her new lover (the film’s single funniest line occurs when Ableman reassures Larry that “The Jolly Roger is quite liveable.  It’s not expensive and the rooms are eminently habitable”).  The only solace in Larry’s increasingly fractured life is the presence of a sultry and seductive neighbour that likes to sunbath in the nude.  Larry would definitely like to meet this woman, but does not have the nerve to speak to her.

Following his unfortunate absence in BURN AFTER READING, Roger Deakins has rejoined the Coens as their resident cinematographer for A SERIOUS MAN, and he gives the late 60’s Midwestern suburbs an artful eye for detail and mood (the setting is a very important secondary character in the film, so attention to it was a must).   Beyond the solid production values and fluid camera work, A SERIOUS MAN further embellishes the Coens as maestros of grim and depressing comedy: just when you think that they place nice with the material, they hoodwink you with their devilish flourishes.  There are many individual moments that are small comic gems: There are multiple dream sequences that typify Larry’s demoralized and agitated mental state; a laugh out loud hilarious scene between Larry and completely naďve and obnoxiously unaware junior rabbi; another scene involving a fairly senile and much older rabbi that speaks less from the Good Book and more from the lyrics of Jefferson Airplane; and lastly another moment involving a different rabbi that begins uproariously (watch how the Coens can make a modest gesture like stirring tea reflect ethereal pathos) and goes on to be a small scale comic masterpiece in its own right.  The rabbi tells an evocative and richly funny tale of a dentist that finds the Hebrew letters inside a patient’s teeth.  After the rabbi elaborately sets up the story and offers no payoff, the fixated and frustrated Larry pleads with to let him know what advice he gave the dentist.  The rabbi dryly responds, “Is it…relevant?”  Larry, of course, demands answers, to which the rabbi modestly replies, “Hasham does not owe us answers or anything else.”  A deeply exasperated Larry retorts, "Why does he make us feel the questions if he’s not gonna answer them, “ to which the Rabbi replies, “Oh.  He hasn’t told me.” 

What’s compelling about A SERIOUS MAN is how well it also manages to convey its deeper religious and philosophical underpinnings alongside its insidiously funny material.  At its core, the film tackles conundrums that are endlessly absorbing, if not a bit pessimistic.  Larry is a good soul, for the most part, and is deeply troubled by his own inability to find spiritual guidance – or answers – for all of his troubles.  Yet, for as proper as he tries to live his life and for as serious as he thinks he is, it seems like God is mocking him.  Are the problems that permeate Larry’s life purely events that have all gathered at the same inopportune time or are they somehow the product of his complete inability to deal with them?  Is there, to mix religious subtexts a bit, some bad karma in his life?  One of the film’s closing moments seems to think so, which shows Larry making one deeply unethical choice and then immediately afterwards he receives a phone call with some ghastly news.  At this point viewers will begin to reflect on the seemingly unrelated prologue a bit more, which emerges at this point to be more germane to the arc of Larry’s character: Were the Yiddish speaking personas that alienated the dybbuk actually ancestors of Larry that have cursed not only their lives, but their future lineage as well?  Or…are all of the nasty incidents in Larry’s life just a cruel series of coincidences?  You can feel the Coens taking great pleasure in not telling us.

Unfortunately, this leads me to the film’s one overriding fault that excludes it from being a complete masterstroke work: The film’s very last scene and shot is abrupt to the point of inciting viewers to shake their heads and throw things at the screen.  Normally, I dislike tidy, audience-pandering conclusions, but the very stark lack of an ending troubled me more than it challenged me, holding me back at a distance from what preceded it.  A SERIOUS MAN had the perfect ending with Larry’s final act and the phone call that followed it, which would have emerged as a hauntingly ambiguous and perversely funny wrap-up .  It not only served as the perfect bookend to the wonderful prologue, but it also reflected on the dicey spiritual unrest that the main character struggles with as well as ultimately speaking towards the thematic pendulum that the Coens titillate us with (are we the victims of larger-than-life omnipotent deities or, rather bluntly, are we all just screwed regardless of our choice of actions?).  A SERIOUS MAN may have imploded in his final minutes, but there is no denying that everything leading up to that point is one of the Coens' most innovative, richly droll, enthusiastically oddball, and engrossing black comedies in years.  Through it all, you can feel their daring hutzpah with both respecting and skewering their personal subjects, a dichotomy that is deceptively hard to pull off. 

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