Bloomington, Minnesota, 1967: Jewish physics lecturer Larry Gopnik is a serious and a very put-upon man. His daughter is stealing from him to save up for a nose job, his pot-head son, who gets stoned at his own bar-mitzvah, only wants him round to fix the TV aerial and his useless brother Arthur is an unwelcome house guest. But both Arthur and Larry get turfed out into a motel when Larry's wife Judy, who wants a divorce, moves her lover, Sy, into the house and even after Sy's death in a car crash they are still there. With lawyers' bills mounting for his divorce, Arthur's criminal court appearances and a land feud with a neighbour Larry is tempted to take the bribe offered by a student to give him an illegal exam pass mark. And the rabbis he visits for advice only dole out platitudes. Still God moves in mysterious - and not always pleasant - ways, as Larry and his family will find out. Written by
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Judith has Larry meet her and Sy at the Embers restaurant to discuss family matters. Embers was a popular chain of "family restaurants" in the Twin Cities in the 60s and 70s, known for TV ads in which a local actress would promise customers dissatisfied with a menu item would have it "cheerfully exchanged." An early Embers spokeswoman was a then-unknown Lonnie Anderson, who would go on to star in TV shows and film. St. Louis Park, where the story is set, had a number of Jewish delicatessen restaurants. That Judith has insisted on discussing private matters supposedly governed by their Jewish faith in a public place adds to Larry's feeling that faith, and thus Hashem, is crumbling all around him. That Embers as is a specifically "mainstream Minnesota" public space identified with Anderson's Scandinavian blondness is an inside joke adding to Larry's feeling of isolation and entrapment. In real life, there was an Embers about.75 mile from the Coen family home, and Joel and Ethan probably ate there numerous times. Embers began to decline in the 80s and eventually went belly up, though the name has been licensed to a few independent restaurants. The location in the film does not resemble an actual Embers in any way. See more »
When the son is studying for his Bar Mitzvah using an LP, the cover of a famous LP of Cantor Joseph Rosenblatt is shown. This record was in actuality a re-issue of Rosenblatt's famous cantorial recordings on the Victor label in the early 20th century, and not what the boy is listening to. See more »
Natural and excellent next step for the Coens' cerebral probing of life's toughest questions
The Coen brothers have developed critical acclaim for making black comedies/awkward tragedies that depict small-time people getting in way over their heads, who for one reason or another are motivated to do things out of the ordinary because the natural order of the world and society has wronged them in some way.
"A Serious Man," however, is about a man who doesn't do anything, to whom bad/annoying things happen. This story of a confused suburban Jewish man in the '60s wrestling with life's meaning is therefore an important step in the evolution of the Coens' theme-driven film-making. Borrowing on an autobiographical context (Minnesota, Judaism, etc.) for the brothers, it moves on to greater cosmic questions but with the same quirky and ironic spirit that have garnered the Coens all their deserved attention over the last 20 years.
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is that one Coen brothers character in every movie -- you know, the innocent one who manages to suffer a seemingly unfair fate (think Steve Buscemi in "The Big Lebowski" or most recently Richard Jenkins' character in "Burn After Reading") -- only he gets to pilot this film. In that spirit, an unknown Stuhlbarg is cast in the lead (although he was clearly up for the challenge). Larry is a mild-mannered math professor with a family in an ideal suburban home only his wife wants a divorce and his kids are nightmarish. Little by little the annoyances of his life pile up from the foreign student trying to bribe him for a passing grade while simultaneously suing him for defamation to his socially immature brother (Richard Kind) who won't leave his house.
Larry seeks answers from the rabbis in his community to understand the mess his life has suddenly become. One rabbi tells him he needs a change of perspective, another tells him the story of "The Goy's Teeth," a hilarious bit about a dentist who tries desperately to make meaning of a Hebrew message engraved in a patient's teeth only to find he was better off not worrying about it. None of their advice seems to help at the time -- but it's dead on. The Goy's Teeth scene in particular is one of the brilliant moments where the Coen brothers let you know pretty clearly what their intentions are with the film while giving you something to laugh about. That's their strength and it's all over "Serious Man."
Much like "Burn After Reading," this film is one that makes a thematic point out of the audience's attempt to squeeze meaning out of everything. By turning Larry into a Job-like figure to whom inexplicable misfortune happens, we're forced to put everything into perspective. When Kind's character, Arthur, has a tantrum in the middle of the night wondering why God has given him nothing and he points out that Larry has kids and a job, suddenly our perspective changes. Suddenly everything we thought mattered in this film and was of critical importance is really not such a big deal. Our desperate search for answers in both our lives and in this film, our tendency to over-analyze and derive reason from everything comes to a halt; the Coen bros. have worked their magic again.
"Serious Man" is one of their best in recent memory because it not only feels rooted and personal for them, but it moves toward a greater discussion of previously treaded upon themes and plots from their previous work. It is a challenging film and those who have struggled with the Coen brothers before will struggle again, but for the cerebral and intellectual moviegoer it's outstanding.
The truth is, we don't have all the answers to make sense of life's events (or a story's plot points) and neither do the Coen brothers. One insignificant character in the film who appears to have an answer to just one of Larry's myriad of minor problems dies instantly with hysterical irony. Don't go into "A Serious Man" looking for answers, go into it looking for a change of perspective. ~Steven C Visit my site at http://moviemusereviews.blogspot.com
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