Every once in a while, a film comes along that keeps you thinking long after it has ended, the Coen Brothers are genius when it comes to this. Even with all of the laughs in this story, it will be the Coens that have the last laugh. The Coens have always had a flair for Jewish culture to make an appearance in their films, no matter how small it may have been, it was still very noticeable. How fitting, that the Coens wrap up an entire film about being Jewish and “being chosen by God,” that we may finally get a sense of who the Coens actually are. A Serious Man is set in early 1967 in the suburbs of Minnesota where they have barely had a whiff of the sixties the rest of the country knows of and where the Coens grew up. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor and father about to get the shit storm of his life.
The story begins with a prologue, not set in wide screen, of a Yiddish speaking couple in snowy Poland who invite a neighbor into their home who may or may not be a dybbuk (a Demon.) From the three long ominous knocks on the door, we are kept wondering and a bit scared of just what might happen.
The feelings are mutual in 1967 when Larry receives an ominous doorbell ring by the pompous and serious man himself, Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed), who has come to push him out of his own marriage to Judy (Sari Lennick) and into a motel. He is currently up for tenure, but anonymous letters to the board may take that from him. He has a disgruntled student who bribes him and simultaneously threatens to sue him. His son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is about to celebrate his bar mitzvah, buts seems a little preoccupied with smoking weed and listening to Jefferson Airplane and his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) never wants to do anything but wash her hair. His brother, Arthur (Richard Kind) has moved in on his couch and has no plans to go, while working on his mathematical theory and draining his sebaceous cyst, all day, eww.
Being a mathematician and physics professor, he naturally believes he can solve any problem or equation. When nothing is certain in his life and he can’t solve the equation, he still holds on to his heritage, looking up to a higher power to fix his woes. Through all of these troubles, everyone insists that he “see the rabbi.” So, one after another, he visits three rabbis with questions of “Why Me?” and calls to the divine one through the rabbis, but reluctantly, there is no answer up stairs. This will make you wonder if the Coens are making a point for Atheism and nihilism, or looking at the world through divinity and Hashem. The fact that there is no definitive answer in the end is what makes this so brilliant.
The cast could not have been more perfect. Being mostly unknowns lets your mind believe these people are truly who they say they are, they looked the part and even made the stereotypical comments and grimaces. Richard Kind (Uncle Arthur) was probably my favorite as he seemed to completely transform into a self-reclusive, dim-witted genius with health problems that probably kept him from ever getting to kick the ball around when he was young. I felt his anguish as he felt embarrassed about himself in front of people, but he was mysterious enough that you never see some things coming. Larry, played by Michael Stuhlbarg was so pathetic, that you can’t help but love the guy and feel for him. He is the perfect under dog.
This movie will definitely not appeal to everyone. While some will see it as witty, black humor, others will only see stereotypical clichés being played out. It’s great that the Coens already have some Oscars at home, because this will most likely slip through the cracks of cinemas everywhere. Even with all of the laughing that I engaged in, it constantly felt like I was witnessing an inside joke from the Coen brothers and I was not in on it, in fact, the joke was probably on me. Either way, it was a great film for me and anyone who loves subtlety and mystery along with a lot of dry humor.
I give A Serious Man 4 “White Rabbits” out of 5.
by Angela Davis