Movie Reviews

Film Review: “A Serious Man”

(Focus Features. 1 hour, 45 minutes. Rated R for language, drug use, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.) Michael Stuhlbarg (Larry Gopnik), Richard Kind (Uncle Arthur), Fred Melamed (Sy Ableman), Sari Lennick (Judith Gopnik), Alan Mandell (Rabbi Marshak), Simon Helberg (Rabbi Scott), George Wyner (Rabbi Nachtner), Amy Landecker (Mrs. Samsky), Fyvush Finkel (Dybbuk). Music by Carter Burwell.

“Why does God make us feel the questions, if he’s not going to give us any answers?” Thus pleads Larry, the protagonist (and only reasonably-likable person) to one of a series of rabbis in the latest sort-of comedy from the Coen Brothers. There is a prologue set in long-ago Poland, where the wife of a poor Jewish farmer questions whether an old traveler visiting them is actually a dybbuk (the soul of a dead man sent back from Hell). This scene is entirely in Yiddish. OK.

Then we’re in 1967 Minneapolis, where the aforementioned Larry is a family man and physics professor. His wife Judith unexpectedly asks for a divorce, as she has taken up with the blustery Sy (“We’re gonna be fine,” he says as he hugs Larry), his daughter wants a nose job, his son is a pothead and slacking off from his Hebrew studies, and Larry’s unemployed brother Arthur is forever draining the large cyst on his shoulder while working on his probability map of the universe. Wait, I’m not done: Larry’s upcoming tenure is threatened by an anonymous letter-writer, and his comely neighbor insists on sunbathing in the nude. Oh yeah, one of Larry’s students is trying to bribe him for a better grade. Ready to rush to the theater yet? There are some mildly funny scenes (the bar mitzvah scene is good), but if there is some great existential point being made here, I missed it. The Coens are undeniably talented (see Blood Simple or Raising Arizona for proof), but with Burn After Reading and this, I’m wondering if they need to take a sabbatical.