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“A Serious Man” is Seriously Good

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Oscar-nominated with tags , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2010 by ericstraus

Dark comedy, or “quirky drama,” is where Joel and Ethan Coen have found their greatest successes over their illustrious career as filmmakers.  From “Raising Arizona” to “Barton Fink,” and from “Fargo” to “The Big Lebowski,” the Coens are masters at creating memorable characters, great dialogue and fascinating backdrops for their stories.  There have certainly been some disappointing moments along the way, but their latest offering, “A Serious Man,” is a triumph, blending comedy with oddball drama, bizarre characters and a truly skewed look at Jewish-American culture and 60’s suburbia.

The person referenced in the film’s title is Professor Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has a lot to deal with.  He is coming up for tenure where he teaches, which is threatened when he is offered a bribe by a Korean student; after a clean bill of health from his doctor, he is later ominously summoned back to discuss the results of his X-rays; his pot-head son Danny only talks to him when he needs the TV antenna fixed; his daughter Sarah is stealing money for a nose job; his gun-toting neighbor keeps infringing on his property line with his lawn mower; his brother Arthur is a mysterious house guest, locking himself in the bathroom for long periods of time while draining a cyst on his neck; and his wife Judith has fallen in love with another man, completely to Larry’s surprise.  Eventually Larry and Arthur are forced to move into a motel when Judy’s lover Sy moves into the house, and during all this Larry tries to find answers through his faith, getting counsel from various rabbis, but finding little help.

Despite the pitfalls that keep happening to Larry, his obliviousness to his family’s problems is quite entertaining, balancing our sympathy for him with laughter at his misfortunes.  His wife’s lover Sy calmly tries to console him and even befriend him, leaving Larry, and us, frustrated to no end.  Arthur, played by Richard Kind, is a prototypical Coen Brothers character – he’s a mathematical genius, creating probability equations at a super-human level, but uses his skills to gamble, for which he gets in trouble with the law.  He uses a 60’s medical technology device to drain his cyst, and comically answers “Just a minute!” every time he is asked to get out of the bathroom. 

The suburbia aspect is a key element of the film – the only true accomplishment Larry feels is in fixing the TV ariel on the roof, particularly when he catches his attractive neighbor sunbathing nude in her backyard.  The property dispute with his neighbor is steeped in truth.  And his son’s daily routine consists of running down the street from the school bully/pot dealer to whom he owes money.  Suburbia is supposed to be a haven; an oasis of “normalcy” in an evil, crazy world.  But Larry’s life is anything but normal and sane, despite how much he wants to believe that it is.

There is a moment near the end of the film that brings everyone together – Danny’s Bar Mitzvah.  Despite each family member’s failings, they all take their faith seriously, and seeing Danny “become a man” brings smiles to all their faces; even Judy and Larry share a proud parental moment.  But naturally things are not completely normal – Danny is stoned out of his mind as he tries to perform the Bar Mitzvah ceremony, and nearly blows it. 

Nominated for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, it’s the Coen’s best comedic film in many years.  The film conveys the message that just when we think things are fine, something else arises to complicate everything, be it Larry’s tenure and his health, to his marriage and his kids, to the film’s ending – it seems like a happy ending, but the final shot shows more doom on the way, which justly sums up the movie. 

Final Grade for A Serious Man:  A-