A Serious Man (2009)


(director/writer: Ethan Coen/Joel Coen; cinematographer: Roger Deakins; editors: Carter Burwell; music: Carter Burwell; cast: Michael Stuhlbarg (Larry Gopnik), Richard Kind (Uncle Arthur), Fred Melamed (Sy Ableman), Sari Lennick (Judith Gopnik), Adam Arkin (Divorce Lawyer), Aaron Wolff (Danny Gopnik), Jessica McManus (Sarah Gopnik), David Kang (Clive Park), Amy Landecker (Mrs. Samsky), Ari Hoptman (Arlen Finkle), Fyvush Finkel (Dybbuk?), Alan Mandell (Rabbi Marshak), Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner), Simon Helberg (Rabbi Scott), Peter Breitmayer (Mr. Brandt); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Ethan Coen/Joel Coen; Focus Features; 2009-in English, Yiddish and Hebrew)

“This is the brothers most personal and most Jewish film, which doesn’t stop it from being their most universal and one of their best.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An indie type of film, cast with mostly unknowns (who are marvelous), that’s codirected and cowritten byEthan Coen and Joel Coen (“Burn After Reading”/”No Country for Old Men”/”The Ladykillers”). This is the brothers most personal and most Jewish film, which doesn’t stop it from being their most universal and one of their best.

A Serious Man is set in the middle-class Jewish community in suburban Minneapolis circa 1967; a setting of neat similar ranch-built suburban homes in close proximity and on subdivided lots, that resembles the Coens’ own childhood background.

The cultural revolutionary time of the Sixties in America even touches nice boy pubescent Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff), who attends Hebrew school, prepares for his soon-to-be bar mitzvah, smokes pot and secretly listens on his transistor radio to the Jefferson Airplane while in Hebrew class. Danny’s dad Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg, a Tony-winning stage actor) is a brilliant but beleaguered physics university professor up for tenure, who will suffer through a number of endurance tests that reminds one of the trials of Job as his life is suddenly coming apart in all directions and he can’t understand it since he considers himself a good person. Larry learns, out of the blue, that his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce with a gett (a Jewish ritual divorce so she can have a rabbi perform the ceremony when she remarries) to marry of all people, the film’s ironically called serious person, an unctuous overbearing recent widower named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed); a pushy South Korean student named Clive (David Kang) becomes a pain as he tries to bribe the professor to pass the course and is persistent; his unfriendly hunting enthusiast red-neck goy next-door-neighbor (Peter Breitmayer), is perceived as an anti-Semite and annoys him by encroaching on his property; his very smart math whiz but socially awkward sad-sack of an oddball brother Arthur (Richard Kind), who is sleeping on the couch with no prospects of leaving soon and who by staying for long periods in the toilet to drain the cyst on his neck disturbs in particular Larry’s crabby self-absorbed nose job seeking oldest child Sarah (Jessica McManus); the chairman of the tenure committee (Ari Hoptman) increases his worries as he informs him not to worry even if the committee is getting anonymous letters attacking his moral turpitude, as he weakly reassures him that the committee will ignore such rumors; Larry keeps getting threatening phone calls about payments due to a mail-order record club he’s never heard of; and, his comely new neighbor (Amy Landecker) tempts him, as he catches her in the yard from the roof of his house sunbathing in the nude. Larry’s only escape from this Kafka-like nightmare is listening to the cantor Sidor Belarsky’s recording of the Yiddish song called “The Miller’s Tears.”

As Larry’s tsuris (woes) intensifies, with even more incidents thrown into the mix like a fender-bender, we catch the likable schlemiel consulting with his high-priced divorce attorney (Adam Arkin) and with three learned rabbis to help him understand why things have gone awry. Eventually, the nice man, who always tried to be a serious person, live up to expectations and be a good person who helps others, finds there are no such things as definite answers to the meaning of life but as in science there are interesting theorems to ponder and ticklish questions that must be dealt with. After all, no one said it would be easy to find out what God wants us to do.

In this brilliant dark comedy, the brothers wisely choose to end Larry’s torturous quest for life’s meanings with the Airplane singing “Don’t you want somebody to love?” This comes after the brothers let us know that Danny, who is not the focal point of the film, but nevertheless might be the autobiographical representation of the brothers, is tuned into the Airplane song that has the lyrics “when the truth is found to be lies and all the hope within you dies… Then what?” The answer the elderly Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell) tells us, speaking in behalf of the brothers, is that we must try to be good.