REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

In Comedy, Drama, Independent, Motion Pictures, S on March 26, 2010 at 12:52 pm

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STUDIO — Focus Features  

CAST — Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus  

DIRECTORS —  Joel Coen & Ethan Coen   

MPAA Rating: R   

So, I’m putting this DVD into my player, knowing that it’s the Coen Brothers, and I come away from this movie asking more questions…  

Why is that?  

In A Serious Man, a Jewish physics professor in the Midwest  named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) comes home from work one day, when his wife (Sari Lennick) tells him out of the blue that she wants a divorce, as well as a “get” (a Jewish ritual divorce). Why? She has fallen for another professor (and Larry’s friend), Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). And with that, we are taken on a journey that leads to a test of faith. Along the way, he has to contend with his pot-smoking son (Aaron Wolff) and his upcoming bar mitzvah, his overbearing daughter (Jessica McManus) obsessed with her outward appearance, his mooching homeless brother (Richard Kind) and his gambling problem, an unscrupulous student (David Kang) trying to bribe his way to a better grade, a gentile macho neighbor (Peter Breitmayer) who apparently doesn’t know where the property line is, and the beautiful woman next door (Amy Landecker) whose husband is frequently away “on business”.  

The Gopnik family (from left: Sari Lennick, Jessica McManus, Aaron Wolff, Michael Stuhlbarg) at the dinner table

 Obviously, Larry has a lot on his mind. But as a physics professor, he knows that all actions have consequences, a point he made clear when confronting Clive, the student who had attempted to bribe him. And in A Serious Man, consequences account for a major contributor to the plot (such as it is — The Coen Brothers admit in the Special Features there really isn’t one). 

It is widely reported that this movie is based on the Story of Job in the Old Testament. Now, I do not claim to be religious by any means, but here is how I understand the Story of Job: God and Satan made a bet that a well-to-do farmer with a happy family would still believe in Him after everything he loves (his family, his home, his friends, his farm, etc.)gets taken away from him; God wins. 

So, what is at stake for our Professor Gopnik? Well, the movie (the main portion of it, anyway) begins with him taking a physical. We also learn he is awaiting tenure at the college where he works, and the “other man”, Sy Ableman, is so supportive of Larry it borders on creepy. 

There is a prologue in this movie about an eastern European Jewish couple, spoken completely in Yiddish. In it, the husband comes home late from work and tells his wife that his cart lost a wheel, but he got help from a man believed to have died from typhus three years earlier. He shows up at the house, and the wife, skeptical of his existence, stabs the “dybbuk” in the chest with an ice pick. The guest then laughs, gets up, and walks out the door into the snow. What does this have to do with the movie? Well, without revealing too many spoilers, Larry has a series of nightmares during his “rough patch”, and at least one of them involves talking to a ghost. 

On the surface, A Serious Man appears to be doing little more than going through the motions. But, after digesting it 24 hours later, I find myself answering many of the questions that I found myself asking when I had finished watching it. The Special Features were somewhat helpful. They included a featurette about making the movie, another about re-creating a Midwestern 1960s atmosphere, and even a glossary of Yiddish and Hebrew terms for us  “goys” (gentiles). 

Normally, the Coen Brothers make movies that I just don’t get; this one, on the other hand, turned out to be an interesting profile of a man facing a crisis, and the consequences of the actions (and inactions) he takes in response to it. In the end, A Serious Man is an introspective movie that takes a while to sink in, but once it does, it will make you think. 

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