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"A SERIOUS MAN"
(2009) (Michael Stuhlbarg, Aaron Wolff) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Dramedy: A Jewish professor tries to figure out why God appears to be picking on him via various annoyances and bigger issues.
PLOT:
It's 1967 and Larry Gopnik (MICHAEL STUHLBARG) is a Jewish professor of physics living in the suburbs of Minneapolis/St. Paul who's looking forward to receiving his tenure. While there are annoyances in his day-to-day experience -- ranging from his teenage daughter Sarah (JESSICA McMANUS) constantly complaining about Uncle Arthur (RICHARD KIND) and his perpetual need to drain his neck cyst getting in the way of her washing her hair; younger son Danny (AARON WOLFF) complaining about bad reception for his favorite TV show; or having neighbors ranging from the unfriendly Mr. Brandt (PETER BREITMAYER) who mows across the property line to Mrs. Samsky (AMY LANDECKER) who sunbathes in the nude -- Larry has a good life. Or at least he thinks his does.

His boss at work informs him that there have been some letters arguing against his tenure, while one of his students, Clive Park (DAVID KANG), is trying to bribe him for a passing grade. He doesn't seem to realize that Danny spends all of his money on pot and constantly has to avoid Mike Fagle (JON KAMINSKI JR.), a much larger neighbor and classmate who wants money from the 13-year-old, who isn't thrilled about having to practice for his pending bar mitzvah.

Things get worse, however, when Larry's wife, Judith (SARI LENNICK), informs him that she's fallen in love with their friend, Sy Abelman (FRED MELAMED), and wants a divorce, but not before she makes him move out and into a nearby motel. While seeking legal advice from a divorce lawyer (ADAM ARKIN), Larry wonders why God seems to be punishing him, resulting in a number of visits to various rabbis.

As he must contend with the disappointments piling up all around him, Larry hopes to find a reason or at least some sort of meaning to his world being upended.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
I often find it quite annoyingly egotistical when certain sports figures -- and particularly football players for some reason -- celebrate their individual athletic effort by pointing up to the sky to thank God for their success. And my reaction is mainly because it's a self-serving abuse of their faith.

Sure, they may have prayed to God for help, but what about the opponents who did the same? Does that athlete truly believe that God chose them over the other person or team? What about the fans who might have also been praying for him not to succeed? Is he so important that his one prayer outweighs the collective amount of the others praying for the opposite result?

What about the sick kid who's dying wish and prayer is in direct opposition to that athlete's prayer? Did God smite that terminal child for some reason? And speaking of that, what's with all of the suffering, disease, disasters, corruption and other social ills that go against one or more prayers for health and happiness?

The stock answer has always been that God works in mysterious ways, but for many a believer (and most non-believers) that's a cop-out of a reason, even if it sticks with one definition of faith as "belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence." With the lack of either of those, however, people will keep asking the "why" questions (Why did this happen to me? Why did God allow this to happen? etc.), in both person and through fiction.

Ricky Gervais' "The Invention of Lying" did that recently, and that's now been followed by "A Serious Man," the latest dramedy from the brotherly filmmaking duo of Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Set in 1960s era Minnesota (but without any of those thick upper Midwest accents that peppered "Fargo" and, along with other elements, made that so entertaining), the film is first and foremost a look at questioning one's faith when bad things happen.

The protagonist (terrifically played by Michael Stuhlbarg) is an unassuming Jewish professor of physics who pretty much fits the bill of the title, but not in any sort of overbearing, stuffy or mean way. Instead, he's just an average guy trying to get by as all sorts of petty work, social and family annoyances turn into more complicated matters. In short, and with them serving as both writers and directors of this effort, the Coens act as a vengeful cinematic god of sorts who keeps dumping misfortune on this poor guy.

That might not sound like much fun to watch, but the filmmakers smartly temper much of that with their trademark comedy, sometimes light, sometimes blackened, and manage to elicit some decent laughs while preventing the flick from becoming a chore to sit through. And much of that stems from surrounding him with self-centered and/or selfish people who don't seem to notice or care that their behavior serves as seriocomic examples of piling on someone who's already down.

While dealing with that, he seeks out answers about what he's done to anger God and bring such problems on himself. But probably to no one's surprise, he doesn't find anything (but his quest does generate some additional humor, particularly regarding how three different generations of rabbis view this age-old query.

And speaking of such figures, the film also serves as something of a loose autobiographical look at the Coens' early days, or at least the sort of world in which they grew up Jewish (specifically a Minneapolis/St. Paul suburb in the 1960s). Although the terminology and traditions might occasionally seem a bit thick for us goys to understand every minute detail, the brothers manage to make it accessible enough that no one's left out of grasping the overall gist of what's occurring.

Yet, all of that Jewish material starts with a somewhat odd prologue located somewhere in the 1800s where a married couple may or may not be dealing with a dybbuk -- essentially a zombie of sorts in this case. More angry than scared, the wife comes up with a unique approach (pure Coen style) of resolving the question at hand. We never ultimately know if she was right or not about her belief in the man's status, but that sets the tone and the fact that the filmmakers aren't going to be answering any of that.

In fact, and while not quite as upsetting, infuriating and/or maddening as abrupt (but brilliant) conclusion to "The Sopranos," they abandon the film without resolving its many loose strings, including two that are introduced right before the sudden credit roll. The meaning of all of that's open to interpretation, but it seems clear they're saying that bad stuff happens without rhyme or reason, at least when viewed through mortal eyes, and that one must have faith that it will all make sense one day. Or not.

Despite the thematic material, this isn't one of their classics along the lines of "No Country for Old Men" or "Fargo," but instead falls somewhere amidst some of their lesser works that lean more on the comedy than the drama. Even so, "A Serious Man" is amusing and entertaining enough to warrant a passing grade of 6 out of 10.




Reviewed October 6, 2009 / Posted October 9, 2009


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