Old 01-11-2010, 01:17 AM
Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man

Finally got to see this, so now I can finally close the book on 2009. My top ten remains as is. Here's the link to my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:


A Serious Man (2009)

The Coen Brothers' "A Serious Man" has been described as a modern retelling of the Book of Job, a story in which a man has his faith put to the ultimate test when everything in his life is going wrong. The interesting part of this film comes from the fact that its main character is not a man of particularly strong faith. In fact, if one had to choose, the better description would be to say he's a man of science. How does such a man deal with a continuous streak of terrible events?

The man is Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg). He is a professor of Physics and is awaiting a decision by the board as to whether or not he will be granted tenure. His wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), tells him that she wants a divorce and will be marrying his friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Meanwhile, a student of his is unhappy with their failing grade in his class and has supposedly left an envelope full of money so that Larry will change the grade.

On top of all of this, there are the constant demands for money from lawyers, a record company that his son has joined, his son's upcoming barmitzva, and the possibility of his wife taking money from their bank account and his wallet. Larry visits two rabbis, of which only two will see him, but they are unable to give him the answers he is looking for. Who could answer the difficult questions that he is asking? Perhaps, he, like Job, is being tested, but for what purpose?

From the start, we know this is going to be a film that's out of the ordinary. It begins with a prologue that could begin to explain some of these things that are happening. A man and wife, supposedly in the past, are in their home while it is snowing out. The man is telling his wife of how a wheel came off of his cart and how a passerby helped. It turns out she knows the man that helped and after telling her his name, she is quite shocked.

The man has been dead for three years. Unaware, the man invited him to their house for soup to thank him. The man has unknowingly invited the soul of a dead man, or dybbuk, into their home. We could interpret these people to be ancestors of Larry's and therefore this event could be seen as a bad omen of things to come.

Bad omen indeed, and the things I've listed are only the start of Larry's troubles. The role of Larry could have easily been an overplayed performance, but Michael Stuhlbarg handles it very well. At first he is calm about the sudden onset of his wife wanting to leave him for Sy, but as things begin to pile up, he slowly lets out more and more emotion. How much can one man take before he has to?

There are few things that give him comfort during these trying times. There is the great news of his son's upcoming barmitzva and his job as a physics professor. There is a very effective scene in which he has filled an enormous chalkboard all to demonstrate an uncertainty principle, which is a great metaphor for his life. He argues that you can't know what's going on, just as he doesn't know why all of this is happening to him.

The best performance in the film comes from Fred Melamed as Sy Ableman. He is a warm and friendly man is every scene he is in, the kind of man that you would want to be friends with, which is something of a shock when you remember that he is stealing Larry's wife away from him. He doesn't get that much screentime, but he makes quite an impact.

The Coen Brothers are known for putting together some very strange films like "Fargo," "No Country For Old Men," and "The Big Lebowski." This film is no exception. This is a film where the answers don't come easy, to Larry or to the audience, if at all. It asks you to make up your own mind about why these things are happening to him.

It ends on a very ominous note, but if you were paying close attention to the story the second rabbi told Larry about the dentist who found a message on the back of someone's teeth, then you realize that the film ends with a note of hope, and after everything that's happened, that's one thing that Larry could use a lot more of. 3/4 stars.
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