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Michael Stuhlbarg in A SERIOUS MAN (Photo: Wilson Webb/Focus Features)

Written, Produced, & Directed by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Released by Focus Features
USA. 105 min. Rated R
Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, Amy Landecker & Adam Arkin

Ethan and Joel Coen have put their unique spin onto classic movie genres (gangster dramas in Miller’s Crossing, Westerns in No Country for Old Men). In A Serious Man, the Coen brothers challenge Woody Allen’s oeuvre. Twenty-five years into their careers they reimagine their 1960’s suburban Midwest Jewish roots (without the sentimental nostalgia of Barry Levinson’s films). Unlike Woody, they connect more to the eccentric humor of Isaac Bashevis Singer than to Borscht Belt comics, to the wisdom of rabbis rather than shrinks, to Jefferson Airplane and not the Gershwins, and to the suburban family as opposed to the whining individual in the city.

Amusingly, they do so by loosely borrowing the format of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The all-Yiddish, eight-minute prologuea new, cautionary “folk” tale set in a Polish shtetlis, in effect, about the Spirit of the Jew From the Past, where a husband and wife argue about a visit from their old neighbor (Fyvush Finkel). Is he alive or has his body been possessed by a spirit, a dybbuk? (Finkel richly makes the most of replaying his early days in Yiddish theater.) The absolute truth is unresolved as the husband seeks a rational explanation, and the wife acts on her faith in the supernatural.

These unsettled spiritual concerns from the Old World haunt the upwardly mobile Jews in the New World of Minnesota. Physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) suffers calamities like a mid-20th century, middle-aged Job. At home, his straight-laced, helmet-haired wife Judith (Sari Lennick) announces she is leaving him for a more serious man, the condescending widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed, an alumnus of several Woody Allen films). His shrill daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus), schemes for a nose job. His son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), copes with bar mitzvah prep by getting stoned. Meanwhile his unemployed, hypochondriac older brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), washes up on his door with a gambling addiction. At work, a student tries to bribe Larry for a passing grade just as the professor’s up for tenure review. And that’s just the set-up before his life gets really complicated. Every time Larry thinks he has a handle on one problem, yet another erupts with unpredictable temptations and droll consequences.

His wife insists he go to synagogue for advice. First he meets with the Rabbi of the Future, the young, clean-shaven associate rabbi, who has no real pastoral expertise in dealing with moral crises. (He is not even familiar with a get, a traditional Jewish divorce procedure). Then Larry meets with the Rabbi of the Present (George Wyner). Brandishing a veneer of scholarship, this prototypically genial suburban leader launches into a fantastical fable of the miracle of holy letters appearing on the teeth of a gentile man. His story links to the prologue, and he only answers the more and more perplexed Larry’s questions with another question. By the time of the climax at the bar mitzvah, it is Danny who finds delightful common spiritual ground with the sage emeritus, Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell). The future of the Jewish community comes full circle with the past, even as the internal and external crises never end. (The closing credits assure that no Jews were harmed during the filming.)

What holds all these very amusing complications together are the pitch-perfect ensemble and the evocative period production design. Centered around Stuhlbarg, a New York theater actor in a breakthrough performance, the few recognizable actors (including Adam Arkin as a divorce lawyer) are surrounded by fresh faces recruited from the Jewish neighborhoods around where the Coens grew up, enacting characters who were inspired by real people the directors knew. For almost every genre the Coens’ have celebrated, cinematographer Roger Deakins has brought a new look they never had before—and the concluding panorama here is as spectacular as any from his notable palette.

The film opens with advice from Rashi, the medieval Talmudic scholar, “Accept with simplicity everything that happens to you,” but the Coens’ cleverness in creatively reinterpreting the American Jewish experience reflects more an ironic Yiddish saying: “Let it be something worse, as long as it’s something different.” Nora Lee Mandel
February 5, 2010



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