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A Serious Man (2009)

Chickenshit for the Soul

Note: It’s been almost two months since I saw A Serious Man. I’ve been struggling to put my thoughts on it into words the whole time. The only upside to being laid up in bed with a drippy, sleepless, chest-bursting cold is that I finally have no excuse to put off this review any longer. I still don’t think I’ve captured everything I want to say, but at least I can blame the meds...

It’s hard to believe that the Joel and Ethan Coen who wrote and directed A Serious Man are the same brothers who brought us Burn After Reading. The former is a masterpiece of cinematic indulgence; the latter is sloppy dog shit.

Harsh? Maybe. But I thought a lot about Burn After Reading in the days after I saw A Serious Man. The dark frustration over that quarter-baked, unfunny political satire almost eroded my glowing enthusiasm for their latest picture, a breezy portrait of a heavyhearted suburbanite. Burn After Reading was clearly a rebound picture, a bit of fun behind the camera after the hard work and passionate investment that was No Country for Old Men. With A Serious Man, the Coens remind us (and possibly themselves) that great, smart comedy is not easy; it does not emerge from cheap, ninety-minute running jokes about Brad Pitt being a ditzy personal trainer (a CW sitcom pitch if I’ve ever heard one).

The film stars Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik, a Minnesota physics professor in 1967. He’s got a wife and two kids, and his biggest problem is that he’s up for tenure at the same time a student is trying to bribe him for a better grade. Out of the blue, his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), announces that she’s leaving him for a widower named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Larry’s shocked at the news. Very quickly, the other elements of his life that he thought were fine—or at least manageable—begin to unravel.
All of the characters Larry encounters are quirky in some way, but realistic enough to be plausible foils; because Larry is painted as a sympathetic character, we alternately root for him to prevail while at the same time wishing that he’d stop being such a timid mess.

A Serious Man is full of story elements (“plot” is the wrong word in this case) that I wouldn’t dare spoil for you. This is a movie that walks the fine line of farce and dramedy and succeeds in the most surprising, fulfilling ways. Much like American Beauty, this is a story about the collapse of a suburban family, but because A Serious Man is rooted in Jewish tradition, it operates a few levels higher than the former film. Many of Larry’s predicaments would have been easily shrugged off by a man who was not so concerned with always doing the right thing (even “the right thing” in some cases, is open to interpretation). That’s not to say that the movie is pro-religion; in fact, the red tape of rules, customs, and the reverent formalities of dealing with Rabbis act as obstacles to Larry’s happiness. This makes for a miserable protagonist and a positively giddy audience—I loved just about every minute of this picture (there’s a story thread involving Richard Kind as Larry’s disabled brother that stuck out like a dog-eared corner on a lithograph).

I even loved the ending.

In case you haven’t heard, the Coens gave this movie the same kind of ending as that of No Country for Old Men—only far more jarring. This movie literally stops in the middle of what looks to be a very important scene. For about twenty minutes after I left the theatre, I felt like I’d just witnessed a car accident; my mind went into shock (call it pathetic if you will—I really get into movies). Thinking back on the film’s message, though, the ending makes perfect sense. In fact, I still have a harder time reconciling the opening of A Serious Man than the final moments (I think I understand what the filmmakers were going for, but I’d have to see it again to be sure). I hope I haven’t ruined anything by mentioning the abrupt finale; I won’t tell you what to watch out for, but just know that you’ll have to fill in a lot of blanks on your own.

This is on my short list of films of the year, and I would be as shocked as Larry Gopnik if this movie didn’t at least get nominated for every major award (save for special effects). Joel and Ethan Coen have made the ultimate movie for people who love movies, cramming it with textures, ideas, and performances that make every sub-par, un-ambitious movie (even ones they’ve made) seem like an insult to mankind’s creative instincts. It’s that good.

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