Coens win again with 'A Serious Man'

Article Published: Dec. 14, 2009 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Coens win again with 'A Serious Man'

"I can see my house from he-- oh, wait." Michael Stuhlbarg stars in 'A Serious Man.'

Coen brothers movies always seem like homemade gifts.

But rather than popsicle-stick picture frames or crocheted scarves, theirs are more like cinematic quilts, sewn with thought and an impeccable attention to detail. It's pleasing to the eye and tempting to wrap around oneself.

Their latest film, A Serious Man, is just so. Visually captivating in an ethereal sort of way, it's easy to get engulfed in its narrative folds and character-driven patchwork, stitched throughout with the filmmakers' trademark blend of oddball humor and human pathos. Put simply, A Serious Man is vintage Coen brothers, and an excellent film at that.

This time around, producer/director/writer team Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, No Country for Old Men) touch on themes of morality, uncertainty and the interconnectedness of both, telling the story of Larry Gropnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, Afterschool), a Jewish physics professor, living in late-1960s suburban Minnesota.

Mirroring the Book of Job, A Serious Man follows Larry through a series of trials and tribulations in his struggle with faith, as he attempts to make heads or tails of his increasingly dire circumstances.

For one, wife Judith (newcomer Sari Lennick) is demanding a divorce so she might marry mutual acquaintance Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed, Crimes and Misdemeanors), a condescendingly soft-spoken and self-proclaimed "serious man," determined to keep an open dialogue with the flabbergasted Larry all throughout the unpleasant process.

Meanwhile, Larry's children, Danny and Jessica (newcomers Aaron Wolff and Jessica McManus), could care less. Danny's preoccupied with getting stoned, watching F-Troop and listening to Jefferson Airplane, while Jessica's obsessed with washing her hair, a pleasure repeatedly denied by Larry's couch-surfing brother, Arthur (Richard Kind, TV's Curb Your Enthusiasm), who, when not gambling, spends most of his time in the bathroom draining a cyst.

Work is just as draining, though not quite as disgustingly so, with Larry's hopes of tenure endangered by an anonymous series of defaming letters, as well as an attempted bribe from failing Korean student Clive (newcomer David Kang), who, after Larry confronts him, threatens to sue for defamation.

Back at home, Larry's xenophobic gentile neighbor (Peter Breitmayer, Changeling) seems every day to be infringing farther on the property line, while his other neighbor, the sultry Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker, Dan in Real Life), sunbathes in the nude, causing Larry (and his roaming eyes) to question his concept of morality.

Dumbfounded, at a loss, and now living at the seedy Jolly Roger Motel (per Sy Ableman's suggestion), Larry turns to religion. He seeks the advice of three rabbis, all of whom, in their own bizarre ways, offer vague solutions to Larry's problems. Should he step back and admire the beauty in God's plan, no matter how dreary it may seem? Or should he accept that he's not meant to understand said plan? Does God even care?

For Larry, a physics professor, it's hard to say - the math adds up, but the answer makes no sense. He tries to be a serious man, but cannot succeed.

The film, however, does. A Serious Man is an all-around winner, beautifully filmed and masterfully directed. As a dark comedy, it keeps one chuckling throughout. As a period piece, the Coens (inspired by their own childhood in a similar neighborhood) have captured the time hook, line and sinker, right down to the garish wall hangings, and its dreamlike quality walks hand-in-hand with grim reality, strengthening the underlying theme of uncertainty.

In Larry Gropnik, the Coens have created one of their most human protagonists, second only to The Dude (Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski). Stuhlbarg delivers a performance both winning and memorable, but the entire cast is solid, the Coens' decision to go with a host of virtual unknowns well-founded. Its more recognizable standouts, though, include the always reliable Kind and George Wyner (TV's Hill Street Blues) as a rabbi whose second-act monologue is easily one of the Coens' best. Then again, so is A Serious Man. Seriously.

A Serious Man, rated R for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence, is playing at the DragonFly Theater & Pub in Boone.

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