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“A Serious Man”
Chris Pandolfi
Studio: Focus Features
Release Date:
Special Features:

3 featurettes


For college physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), life is falling apart. For seemingly no reason, his wife wants to divorce him and be with his colleague. His children have no respect for him; the son steals money to support a marijuana habit and the daughter steals money to save up for a nose job. ***

His brother has little to no social skills, and because he lacks the ability to take care of himself, he lives in Larry's house. At school, the father of a South Korean exchange student is threatening to sue, which is awkward since the student may or may not have bribed Larry for a better grade. He's up for tenure, yet the impending divorce and a property dispute with his neighbor has him up to his neck in legal fees. It seems the only good thing he has going for him is attending his son's bar mitzvah. ***

We expect quirkiness from a Coen Brothers' film. We might even expect bleakness. "A Serious Man" gives us all that, and then goes one step further by being philosophically profound. Not profound in that boisterous, overstated way--in which a speech is made and everyone learns a valuable lesson--but in that silent, underhanded way, where theme, character, and plot reveal themselves slowly through carefully constructed symbols. ***

Symbolism is tricky because you always run the risk of overdoing it; even wonderful films like "Milk," "Gran Torino," and "W." occasionally fell victim to obvious imagery. With "A Serious Man," most of the symbolism is reserved for cleverly worded anecdotes, which paradoxically explain nothing. Larry is a faithful man, yet the rabbis he visits can't seem to give him decent spiritual advice. Then again, is it possible to find the answers on the outside when the problems are within? ***

Stuhlbarg is perfectly cast, playing Larry not as the raving comical figure one might expect from a man in his situation. Rather, he plays him as a quietly desperate man, someone who sees everything around him yet can't process how it has all gone wrong. The more he tries to understand the meaning of his life, the less he ultimately discovers. ***

Why, for example, has his wife, Judith (Sari Wagner Lennick), never given any indication that their marriage was in trouble? Why does she want to be with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a man so phony and obnoxious that he should be hated on general principles? Why did Larry have to move into a motel when it would have been much easier for Judith to move in with Sy? Maybe the answers lie with the elusive Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell), who Larry has been having trouble making an appointment to see. ***

What this movie so brilliantly conveys is that paralyzing sense of being on your own in an unsympathetic world. This applies to the look as well as to the people; the Coen Brothers, who grew up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota during the 1960s, have faithfully recreated that time and place, pitting their protagonist against a frighteningly routine mid-twentieth century landscape of identical rambler homes and neatly manicured lawns. ***

But the fact that Larry is having a hard time doesn't necessarily mean we nothing but sympathy for him; he thinks he can solve all his problems simply by visiting rabbis, when in fact they can only provide him with metaphorical observations and long-winded fables that don't really go anywhere. He seeks an insightful message when in fact there isn't one to give, save maybe for the lyrics of a Jefferson Airplane song. ***

Aside from Larry, the film's most engaging character is his brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), a man whose notebook of rambling mathematical formulas blurs the line between genius and insanity. He physically represents his social awkwardness: Overweight, tall, and perpetually hunched over, with a cyst on the back of his neck that he continuously drains with a special suction machine. ***

He seems like a decent person at heart, although that doesn't mean he isn't capable of doing something wrong. There comes a point when he runs off half naked, crying like a five-year-old while ranting about how unfair God has been to him. He looks at Larry and sees not a miserable soul whose life is falling apart, but as someone who lucked out by getting married and having children. Is he right? I guess that depends on how you define being lucky. ***

Some audiences will not appreciate the ending, which symbolically makes it clear that virtually nothing has been resolved. We do, however, get a wonderful visual representation of a turning point, something the Coen Brothers are known for including in their films. It's an image that emphasizes more than life's unpredictability; it also emphasizes a new chapter in Larry's life, one we aren't meant to see but know will be just as challenging. One can only hope that he eventually finds the answers he has been looking for. ***

Special Features:

This DVD includes three featurettes: “Becoming Serious,” “Creating 1967,” and “Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys.” The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen format and features Dolby 5.1 Digital sound in English, French, and Spanish. ***

Final Words:

"A Serious Man" is one of the best films of 2009--darkly funny and deeply introspective, deliberately paced and cleverly structured, strong in character, dialogue, and imagery. Some of its greatest images are of quirky subtleties, like carefully angled shots of Larry's facial expressions. If you were in his situation, your face would look the same way.


Copyright @ Teakwood Productions 2000
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