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With: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, Peter Breitmayer, Brent Braunschweig, David Kang, Jon Kaminski Jr., Ari Hoptman, Alan Mandell, Amy Landecker, George Wyner, Michael Tezla, Stephen Park, Allen Lewis Rickman, Yelena Shmulenson, Fyvush Finkel, Raye Birk, Jane Hammill, Claudia Wilkens, Simon Helberg, Warren David Keith
Written by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence
Running Time: 106
Date: 09/12/2009

A Serious Man (2009)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Enigma of Teeth

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The fourteenth feature film by Joel and Ethan Coen is a head-scratcher as puzzling as Barton Fink (1991), but at the same time, it's a humanistic and emotionally moving work, reaching some of the high points of Fargo (1996). Deliberately made without any known movie stars, it's a film filled with amazing sequences and very much worth seeing and pondering at length, but at this early date and with only one viewing, I'm not entirely sure that its two sides are totally, perfectly in harmony with one another.

A Serious Man starts with a seemingly unconnected prologue, set in Poland and spoken in Yiddish with subtitles. A man inadvertently brings home a dybbuk -- the dislocated soul of a dead person -- after he helped the man fix his broken cart. The man believes that the visitor is not a dybbuk, but the wife believes he is, and stabs him. From there, we jump to Minnesota in 1967. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a professor hoping for tenure, and believes his normal, suburban life is going pretty well. During a visit to his doctor, he remarks that everyone in the family is "good." But at home, his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) asks for a divorce (or in the Jewish community, a "gett"), as she has fallen in love with a widower named Sy (Fred Melamed). Larry's son is a pot-smoker whose only concern is whether the roof antenna is on straight enough for him to watch "F-Troop." (That, and he owes $20 to the local drug dealer.) Larry's daughter is a prima donna who would spend all her time in the bathroom doing her hair, if not for the fact that the family's Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind) spends all his time in there draining his neck cyst (eww).

At the same time, Larry's tenure has been threatened by a series of anonymous letters, and one of his students (a Korean boy) tries to bribe him to change an "F" on a test. (The student very cleverly leaves an envelope full of cash on Larry's desk, absolving himself of bribery should Larry refuse). Larry's next-door neighbor looks as if he's going to build a shed a bit too close to the property line, and then there's a car accident to be dealt with. On top of that, there's the hotel bills after Judith kicks Larry out of the house, and the lawyer bills. Oh, and Uncle Arthur has just been arrested for gambling. Larry tries to take solace in an imagined affair with his sexpot neighbor, Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker) -- who sizes him up with a black-eyeliner-fueled stare -- but can't even get that right.

Amidst all these problems, Larry tries to get in to see a series of increasingly learned and important rabbis, each of whom leaves him with increasingly cryptic advice. A young rabbi makes some comment about finding truth in a parking lot, and a second one tells him a mysterious story about "the goy's teeth." The third one sits and contemplates in his dark office and won't even see him.

Then things get really weird, including a final shot that will wow everyone.

A Serious Man is notable for the way it steeps itself in Jewish identity and culture, complete with a few asides about those annoying "goys." But at the same time, it's a rather pessimistic view of same, complete with a boy attending his own bar mitzvah in a marijuana haze. It's actually a relentlessly depressing series of events, and the Coens leave it all up to Stuhlbarg, in his first lead movie role, to shoulder all the pathos. He does an admirable job of carrying it and turning it into black humor where he can, but it's fairly easy to leave this film with a profound sense of despair. Some have speculated that the Coens based most of this on remembrances of their own childhood, though it's difficult to believe them sometimes, especially since they once claimed that Fargo was based on a true story (it wasn't) and that O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) was based on Homer's The Odyssey (they had never read it).

Essentially I found A Serious Man fascinating, even if the pieces didn't immediately fit together for me. I suspect, however, that like Barton Fink, the years will be kind to it, and subsequent viewings will make things, if not clearer, then at least more cohesive. The key to the whole thing, I suspect, is the story of the goy's teeth, a story that seems to have no point, and no ending. What does it all mean, Larry asks? Should I be nicer to people? "It couldn't hurt," replies the rabbi.

Blu-Ray Details: Released by Universal/Focus, A Serious Man is hands-down the best looking Blu-Ray I have seen in my two weeks of Blu-Ray reviewing (from among 15 titles). It's pretty typical for a Coen Brothers release, though, and the extras are pretty skimpy (there are more on "BD Live," which I don't have hooked up yet). The Coens appear in a pretty standard making-of featurette, and then there are two more short featurettes on recreating the 1960s and a brief guide to the Hebrew and Yiddish terms in the movie.

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