JWR Articles: Film/DVD - A Serious Man (Directors/Writers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen) - January 7, 2010

A Serious Man

4.5 4.5
105 min.

Answer me this

Finally, a deep, dark comedy that quietly tickles the intellectual, moral and situational funny bone without pandering to easy laughs or overdone bathroom humour (to be sure there are laughs in the lavatory “I’ll be there in a moment,” but driving those by draining a cyst rather than “choking the chicken” or moving a bowel is just one small example of how writers/directors Ethan and Joel Coen demonstrate their superior skills).

Time and time again, the wily filmmakers sprinkle the overarching storyline of the fall and decline of Larry Gopnik’s life (a masterful, wide-ranging and sensitive performance from Michael Stuhlbarg) with a fine combination of overt, discreet and subliminal set-ups whose payoffs give their film extra punch and an unstoppable pace.

Lifting off the largely sardonic proceedings with a cautionary dybbuk (spirit believed to enter a living body—Jewish folklore) episode, brilliantly sets the 1967 stage for another persona who has failed to realize that “One knows when one isn’t wanted.” Arthur Gopnik (Richard Kind is totally convincing as the mentally-gifted, socially-inept gentle giant) lives with his brother’s family and drives his sister-in-law Judy (Sari Lennick) into the arms of the smartly-named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), nephew Danny (Aaron Wolff) into the blissful buzz of marijuana and niece Sara (Jessica McManus) to her neighbour’s for a hair wash before yet another visit to “The Hole.”

For a time, Arthur’s “Beautiful Mind” (he’s written a voluminous “probability map of the universe”) threatens to lead the action (his physics-professor, younger brother is up for tenure but hasn’t published anything …) but the Coens wisely let that notion tease into the dramatic sunset in order to more fully keep the real-life perils and Walter Mitty dreams of Larry in their fanciful and fantastic limelight.

Musically reinforcing the notion of searching for the answers to self are some tracks from Jefferson Airplane, notably “Somebody to Love,” which magically comes into earshot on several occasions thanks to the moveable prop of Danny’s one-earpiece transistor radio. The timely employment of harp, piano and a bit of orchestra (Carter Burwell’s original score is a carefully-crafted, motif-rich accompaniment) works well at every turn of circumstance; the walk into Rabbi Marshak’s (Alan Mandell) dungeon of learning is especially fine.

The subplots are also well structured: Clive’s (David Kang has just the right tone) attempt to “buy” a passing grade from the cash-strapped professor finds a fascinating resolution that is truly from the Gods and Nature. The attention to detail—from the family’s slurping-soup trio to young Rabbi Scott’s voluminous rolodex—supports both cultural “traditions” and epoch in every frame.

Despite much pastoral counselling, Larry can’t find any solutions to his personal (Judy and Sy want a ritual divorce in order to re-marry), professional (the tenure committee has been receiving anonymous, uncomplimentary letters which “Of course will have no bearing on the outcome”) and spiritual/moral (take a bribe?) dilemmas. Instead he gets a hilarious recounting of a denturist’s incisor cryptogram that has no payoff before confessing to Rabbi Number Two (George Wyner) and admitting “The boss [a.k.a God] isn’t always right.”

There are so many layers, levels and latitudes that frequent viewings are recommended and won’t disappoint, even if the most important question can’t ever be answered. JWR

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