Walking into a Coen Brother’s film is a bit like going to a therapist for two hours but not knowing what neurosis you will be treated for. The only thing you can be sure of is there will be some messin’ with your head. That is at once the charm and challenge of their filmmaking. A Serious Man is the story of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a mathematics professor who has carefully calculated his life and on the verge of tenure, when his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick) asks for a divorce. There was already a lot of tension in the house, with a stoner son, a self-obsessed daughter and loser Uncle Arthur.
Larry is in shock and tries to reason things back together, but Judith and her new companion, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), keep applying pressure and push him to visit “The Rabbi.” The guy for the job is Rabbi Marshak, but he’s much too busy to see anyone these days. So Larry settles for the junior Rabbi, who essentially tells him life is like a parking lot. Not a great help. He’s shuttled to a second Rabbi who takes more of his time and is of even less help.
In the meantime the story unfolds on a number of side plots involving the son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), who’s radio is confiscated in Hebrew school and contained the money he needed to pay off a drug purchase. Uncle Arthur is working on some landmark writing and attending single mixers, which turn out to be card games. One of Larry’s students realizes he is going to fail so he tries to buy a passing grade by leaving behind an envelope full of money. And if that wasn’t enough, the head of the tenure committee drops by to inform him that someone is writing anonymous letters besmirching Larry’s good name. It seems everyone wants a piece of Larry, even the Columbia Record Club who keep calling trying to collect on the latest selection of the month, Santana Abraxas.
The filmmaking craft is so smart. The Coens are masters of pacing and camera placement that advance the story and define characters in subtle but effective ways. One of Larry’s neighbors is a very scary man who over mows the property line week after week and then claims the extra real estate for his own. He also doesn’t think twice about taking his son out of school to go hunting. Signature Coen all the way. Landscape always plays an important role in Coen films. This picture is set in 1967 in rural midwest and they successfully re-create the time, space and sounds, with the possible exception of the school buses; they look a bit too modern. As with most of their films (No Country for Old Men excluded), music plays a significant role; lots of Jefferson Airplane air time and Carter Burwell’s repeating score.
The Gopnik’s are Jewish (you got that right?) and the Coens leverage, but never disparage their culture or faith. They do however have fun with it. Larry’s son smokes a joint just before his Bar Mitzhav and is stoned out of his mind while trying to recite a portion of the Shabbat. And there is a quick shot of the Rabbi holding up the Torah and exclaiming, “Jesus Christ” over its weight.
Larry gets one big break. While on the roof adjusting the TV antenna he notices Mrs. Samsky sunbathing in the nude next door. He visits her after the separation with Judith, and finds himself on her sofa smoking pot. But even that opportunity is vanquished by the misfit Arthur. One saving grace for the audience. Larry seems so much more entertaining when he’s high. But we are beginning to feel it’s total doom for Larry. At the end of the picture we find out for sure. Probably just as well he didn’t get in to see Marshak. Visit the official A Serious Man web site here.
I found myself thinking more about this film the second or third day after seeing it, but frankly, I’d rather go back and watch No Country for Old Men, Fargo or Miller’s Crossing. I think I’ll do that this weekend.
Photo Credit: Focus Features
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