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Ann Hornaday Movie Review: Coen Brothers' Latest Film 'A Serious Man'

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In the latest film from the Coen brothers, a beleagued professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) begins to ask significant spiritual questions when various elements of his life start crashing down upon him.

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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009

What do the Coen brothers want from us?

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For 25 years, the writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen have hovered like indifferent gods over a universe of their creation, making movies so dense with opaque meaning and tonal contradictions that they can be parsed with verve bordering on the exegetical.

"A Serious Man," their most explicitly autobiographical movie to date, may well come to be seen by Coen disciples as the filmmakers' ur-text, a distillation of the themes, preoccupations and flaws that have animated the best and worst films of their career. Considered within that oeuvre, "A Serious Man" might not be "Fargo," but it nestles comfortably somewhere beneath that masterpiece and "Miller's Crossing," yet far above such minor works as "The Ladykillers" and "Intolerable Cruelty."

Here, the Coens return to the Minneapolis suburb of their childhood, specifically 1967, when physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) discovers that the comfortable, middle-class life he thought he -- deservedly -- possessed is quickly dissolving around him.

He's having troubles with his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick); his eccentric brother Arthur (Richard Kind), who has been sleeping on the Gopniks' couch, shows no signs of leaving; and his children, Danny and Sarah, are constantly bickering. Meanwhile, Larry entertains those myriad ethical dilemmas that define daily life, from whether to wait for Uncle Arthur before starting dinner to negotiating property lines with a neighbor to dealing with a disgruntled student seeking a better grade.

As the title character of "A Serious Man," Larry approaches every question, large or small, with equal amounts of gravitas. But even a rational man (Larry's preferred term) needs a little help sometimes, and when the ever-multiplying calamities threaten to overwhelm him, Larry seeks the counsel of three rabbis. "A Serious Man," loosely based on the Old Testament's Book of Job -- although, really, what Coen brothers movie isn't? -- follows Larry as he tries to make sense of what's happening to him, a line of moral questioning that results as often in increasing his sense of befuddlement as it does in mystical insight.

"Accept the mystery," one character advises Larry at one point. At another, after regaling Larry with a shaggy-dog tale ("The Goy's Teeth") about a dentist and a patient with mysterious bridgework, a rabbi delivers his own enigmatic, maybe yes-maybe no pearl of wisdom. "Helping others?" he says with a Talmudic shrug. "It couldn't hurt."

A darkly funny, affectionate homage to their Jewish roots, "A Serious Man" feels like the Coens' most disarmingly personal film in an oeuvre characterized by a chilly ironic distance that too often has shaded into outright condescension. (The best example may be the overpraised "No Country for Old Men," a mannered, pseudo-intellectual genre exercise devoid of real depth or meaning.) The Coens certainly indulge in their signature predilection for exasperating non-sequiturs in "A Serious Man" -- right off the bat, in a gratuitous prologue performed entirely in Yiddish that bears only the most tenuous connection to the story at hand. And they resort, as is their wont, to a few cheap laughs, such as a climactic scene involving the elusive Rabbi Marshak that ends with a too-cute-by-half punch line.

But even with these weaknesses on one side of the ledger, "A Serious Man" counts as one of the Coens' best, if only for its relative lack of the snark to which the filmmakers are prone. Stuhlbarg, a virtual unknown on the big screen (as are most members of the superb supporting cast), portrays Larry in a fearlessly nebbishy performance, earning every shred of the audience's empathy as a man of constant sorrow, whose inexplicable trials plunge him only deeper into sincere, if increasingly desperate, spiritual inquiry.

The Coens infuse "A Serious Man," as they do with so many of their films, with an unerring sense of unique time and place: The largely Jewish Midwestern enclave inhabited by the Gopniks and their friends evokes the spare, treeless sense of possibility of a geographical tabula rasa, ready to be inscribed with its own tribal rituals and narrative. Filmed in the flat, half-toned hues that dominated the time period, with unadorned staging, "A Serious Man" finds its propulsion in longtime Coen composer Carter Burwell's delicately layered score, which infuses the enterprise with the taut somberness of a thriller.

Mostly, "A Serious Man" succeeds because it engages questions worth asking. What is integrity? Does our atavistic need for stories illuminate the meaning of life or further obfuscate it? What does it mean to be good and how are we to achieve it? As one of Larry's interlocutors wisely reminds him, God (or Hashem, as that entity is referred to throughout the film) doesn't owe us the answers; instead it's the other way around.

As for the question of what the omnipotent, maddeningly aloof Coens want from their cinematic flock, the answer is characteristically elusive. Deploying random encounters, dreams, plot devices and a dose of Old Testament fury, they manage to create a shaggy-dog parable of their own, which isn't quite comedy but not quite drama, either.

If "A Serious Man's" wildly indeterminate climax is sure to keep Coen scholars busy for centuries, the film's occasional injections of self-conscious, absurdist humor show that they're still prone to fall back on jejune inside jokes (here, the running gag is a tiresome Jefferson Airplane riff). Audiences looking for sustenance or solace will find in "A Serious Man" a supreme example of the filmmakers' most enduring ethic over a quarter-century: As much as the Coen brothers giveth, the Coen brothers taketh away.

A Serious Man (105 minutes, at Landmark's E Street and Bethesda Row cinemas) is rated R for profanity, some sexuality, nudity and brief violence. In English and Yiddish with subtitles.


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