A Serious Man

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A Serious Man
swan_humdrum
Run time 105 Minutes
Not for Children

Michael Stuhlbarg in Focus Features’ “A Serious Man” (2009)

Michael Stuhlbarg in Focus Features’ “A Serious Man” (2009)

Joel and Ethan Coen have been responsible for some entertaining movies like Fargo (1996) and Burn After Reading (2008). This time, however, they make a film based on their Jewishness and growing up in the Midwest in 1967, and, unless you are Jewish, it misses the mark.
Larry Gopnik (Tony Award nominee Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a quiet Midwestern university, has just been informed by his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) that she is leaving him. She has fallen in love with one of his more pompous acquaintances, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who seems to her a more substantial person than the feckless Larry. Larry’s unemployable brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is sleeping on the couch, his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is a discipline problem and a shirker at Hebrew school, and his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) is filching money from his wallet in order to save up for a nose job.
While his wife and Sy blithely make new, domestic arrangements, and his brother becomes more and more of a burden, an anonymous hostile letter-writer is trying to sabotage Larry’s chances for tenure at the university. Also, a graduate student seems to be trying to bribe him for a passing grade while at the same time threatening to sue him for defamation. Plus, the beautiful woman next door (a luscious Amy Landecker) torments him by sunbathing nude. Struggling for equilibrium, Larry seeks advice from three different rabbis. Can anyone help him cope with his afflictions and become a righteous person—a “mensch,” a serious man?
While sitting through all the travails Larry patiently endures, I kept thinking that this was just the Book of Job updated to the 20th Century but the Coens never mention any such inspiration. Still, I think the analogy holds, except for the ending.
This is hardly favorable to the Jewish religion. All three rabbis are presented in an unfavorable, but comedic, light, not unlike the way Seinfeld (1990-98) presented a comedic rabbi who makes a pass at Elaine as a continuing character, and the goofy mohel in The Bris (1993), played by Charles Levin in one of TV’s funniest performances. Here’s a link to view the 3-minute mohel segment of the show: video.google.com/video search?q=moyle+on+seinfeld&oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&um=1&ie=UTF-8&ei=Ma_USo jnN4TWtgOByqS9Dg&sa=X&oi=video_result_group&ct=title&resnum=4&ved=0CBYQqwQwAw#. But make sure you’re sitting down. I wouldn’t want anyone to hurt themselves falling over laughing.
But, back to A Serious Man, the acting is uniformly good. In addition to a fine performance by Stuhlbarg, especially outstanding are Lennick, who is particularly hateful, and Melamed, who is particularly unctuous. But for a world that is predominately goyim, unlike Seinfeld, this seems too esoteric to appeal to a wide audience.

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