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DVD Review: "A Serious Man"

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Michael Stuhlbarg stars as Larry Gopnik in 2009's "A Serious Man"
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- What more can really be said of the genius of Joel and Ethan
Coen? I mean sure, they’re human and every so often give us duds like their
remake of The Ladykillers but generally
speaking the Coen brothers’ films typically end up being modern-day classics.

And while everyone is in a dither over their recent remake
of True Grit, a film I still have yet
to see, I am still captivated by the film released just before that – 2009’s A Serious Man.

Now out on DVD and with me being pretty much snowed in, I thought this the
best time to finally check out this film starring mostly a cast of unknowns,
save performances by Jewish actors including Adam Arkin, as a divorce lawyer
and Richard Kind who plays a troubled brother to the main character.

What we have is a dark, oddball sort of comedy only the Coens
could come up with. Probably my favorite of their intellectual comedies, at
least since the underappreciated 2001 film noir The Man Who Wasn’t There.

Sure, there’s a lot of Jewish stuff gentiles may not get but
that doesn’t matter so much. It is basically a peak into a time and period and
place and culture where things are taking place that aren’t always easy to see or
understand.

And that is all too true when we are introduced to Larry
Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a nebbishy physics professor at a university in
Minnesota circa 1967. He is seeking tenure but it’s not a given. A student
tries to bribe him so he doesn’t fail his class and the Columbia record club rep (you’ll recognize the voice on the phone from Fargo) is hounding hapless Larry for payment for a couple of
records he allegedly received – records that were actually going to Danny and
titles that would not be released until 1970 (Santana’s Abraxas and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Cosmo’s Factory – perhaps it had more to do with references to the
album titles than to the actual year they were released – an inside joke by the
Coens?) Regardless, I can relate to this, having been harassed by this company years ago. They do not give up, as illustrated in this film. Perfect!

 Things are not going
well for the Jewish man whose world seems to be falling apart all around him.

Gopnik’s wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for a
condescending older widower named Sy Ableman. Meanwhile Gopnik’s shrill
daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) is worried about her looks while his son Danny
(Aaron Wolff)  is grooving to the sounds
of the Jefferson Airplane on his transistor radio – taken away by his Hebrew
teacher - and smoking pot with his buddies while putting off preparations for
his impending bar mitzvah.

It’s here where I should note that the Coens very
effectively incorporate a lot of songs from the Airplane’s classic album Surrealistic Pillow – “Today, “ “Comin’
Back to Me” and primarily the Summer of Love smash “Somebody to Love,” a
psychedelic rock classic referenced in a most amusing way by an elderly rabbi –
but I’ll get to that in a minute …

There’s a lot going on here. A lot of subtle textures and
things that may take repeated viewings. One I noticed involved a car crash involving
both Larry and Sy – at the same time and in different locations. Larry lives
and Sy dies. Why? Did this have anything to do with his earlier reference to
the thought paradox called “Schrodinger’s cat”? Perhaps. It’s also like the beginning
of the film, which takes place in a Polish shtetl
in the early 1900’s. Is the man who entered the home of a Jewish couple alive
or dead? Could he be both at the same time? Definitely a paradoxical theme
taking place.

Questions are answered with more questions. A strange visit
to another rabbi at his synagogue reveals a curious tale of a Jewish dentist
treating a gentile man who has Yiddish letters carved on the inside of his
teeth. The patient is unaware of this but it troubles the dentist. But when the
rabbi can’t explain the meaning of the bizarre story, he leaves in frustration.

Larry is doing his best to cope with each situation, all
from a Jewish perspective. He is intimidated by his redneck neighbors and is
threatened – paradoxically – with a lawsuit from the father of the young man
who he was going to fail.

And yet tying everything together is quantum physics. There
is that troubled brother, Arthur, who while getting arrested for gambling and
other crimes seemingly has devised a brilliant theory that will show a
connection with all natural laws. It’s just he uses his theories to benefit
monetarily and it only gets him in trouble.

The Coens, who grew up in the suburbs of the Twin Cities
really capture the feel of that Midwest suburbia. I’m surprised they didn’t
include The Monkees’ “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” a hit in ’67. There is a
crispness to each scene. It feels as if they captured the time period
perfectly.

Oh, and Danny’s transistor radio? Somehow it ends up with
Rabbi Marshak, that elderly rabbi. As Danny’s sits before the rabbi, he begins:

Quoting verbatim from the song “Somebody to Love,” the rabbi
begins: “When the truth is found, to be lies … and all the hope, within you
dies. Then what?”

He clears his throat, and in an appropriately surrealistic
fashion continues: “Grace Slick, Marty Balin, Paul Kantner, Jorma Kau …”

Danny helps the rabbi, giving him Jorma’s last name as “Kaukonen.”

“Something … These are the members of the Airplane,” the
rabbi says, as Danny smiles and the rabbi hands Danny his transistor radio
back, adding, “Be a good boy.”

A good boy. A serious man. I think the Coen’s are trying to
explain that we all try to be “good” and “serious” and that despite the seeming
meaninglessness of life, the Creator knows we have our struggles and that life
happens. Some good, some bad. It’s how we handle those events in our lives that
matter.

Grade – B+

Copyright 2011 West
Marie Media

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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