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A Serious Man

Another Coen Brothers Masterpiece

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Over three decades and fourteen films, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen have taken their godlike powers as filmmakers (they write, produce, and direct their own films) to their logical, sometimes absurd, extremes. Like any old-school deity, the Coens can be arbitrary and capricious, dispensing justice and injustice in unequal measure. No clearer example exists in the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre than their latest film, A Serious Man, a period tragicomedy loosely inspired by their childhood experiences in Minnesota during the 60s.

Less a laugh-inducing absurdist farce than a head-scratching existential black comedy, A Serious Man belongs in the same category as the Coen Brothers better (or even best) films including No Country for Old Men, O, Brother Where Art Thou and Miller’s Crossing.

A Serious Man takes “Murphy’s Law” (“anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”) and gives it a Jewish twist. The stable, ordered existence that Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a Midwestern university, relies on becomes unglued when his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), asks for a divorce so she can marry the mellifluous-voiced, sanctimonious Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed).

Meanwhile, Larry’s pot-smoking, Jefferson Airplane-listening, "F-Troop"-watching son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), attends Hebrew school to prepare for his bar mitzvah and his teenage daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus), spends most of her time washing her hair (when she’s not lifting cash from his wallet to hang out with her friends or save up for a nose job). Larry’s couch-surfing older brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), a socially challenged, ex-mathematician works feverishly on his magnum opus, the “Mentaculus", a fractal-shaped probability equation that fills an entire notebook.

And that’s just Larry’s chaotic personal life. Larry may be a physics professor, but he’s not a deep thinker. Mathematics and physics have provided him with comfort and certainty. Larry’s future as a college professor teeters on the brink between tenure and non-tenure; growing increasingly unlikely after one of his students, Clive Park (David Kang), attempts to bribe him for a better grade. When Larry rejects his offer, Park’s father appears, threatening a defamation suit.

As Larry’s financial woes (e.g., paying for a divorce attorney, a motel room, etc.) spiral out of control, the money-stuffed white envelope sitting in a locked drawer in his desk tempts him. The temptations mount when Larry’s chain-smoking, raccoon-eyed, naked-sunbathing neighbor, Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker), invites him over for drinks and talks ominously about the “new freedoms”. Gopnik eventually decides to seek out advice and enlightenment from the twenty-something Rabbi Ginzler (Simon Helberg), the well-respected Rabbi Nachter (George Wyner), and the “wise old man” of the Jewish community, Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell). Larry gets some of the former (advice), but little of the latter (enlightenment). Easy answers from authority figures are usually absent from the Coen Brothers’ films.

A Serious Man is not, as some might argue, a film about the meaningless of life or the limits or inadequacies of religious faith, but about finding meaning in family, work, tradition, and faith in response to the randomness and uncertainty of life. The Coen Brothers drop hints, both about their themes and the Book of Job for attentive moviegoers. The Coen Brothers are both explicitly commenting on the connection between Gopnik and Job and acting as cruel, capricious gods over their fictional creations. And when we recognize Larry’s predicament is, on the deepest level, universal, we laugh -- grateful that, at least for now, we’ve been spared Larry’s fate.