2009. 106 min. R – brief distant nudity, language, drug use, mild violence.IMDB says... A black comedy drama centered on Larry Gopnik, a Midwestern professor who watches his life unravel through multiple sudden incidents. Though seeking for meaning and answers he seems to stay stalled.
The 73rd Virgin says... Between the 25 million dollar budget for “No Country for Old Men”, the 37 million for “Burn After Reading” and the 38 million for “True Grit”, all hits - and the ever-growing cult for “The Dude” - the Coen brothers slipped in this odd 7 million dollar experimental comedy steeped in what I presume is reasonably accurate Jewish angst with a mid-western twist.
I watched this a couple years ago but never got around to a decent review because I didn’t know which way to jump. I don’t usually watch the special features on DVD before reviewing, but after re-watching the movie, I decided I needed the help.
This opens with an unrelated and unsourceable Jewish myth spoken in Yiddish that is a neither funny nor scary ghost story from 19th century Europe. The Coens basically acknowledge it has nothing to do with the remainder of the movie and compare it to the cartoons that used to show before main features.
From there we jump to 1967 and meet a small community of Minneapolis Jews who all attend the same synagogue and are perhaps too much in each other’s business. Larry is a serious, hard-working, un-tenured physics professor at a local college. We first meet him having a check-up at the doctor’s office. He dutifully sends his two children to Hebrew school and takes care of his treeless suburban house and yard.
Larry’s children have no use for him other than as a source of cash and someone they can gripe at when the TV antenna is malfunctioning. His older brother lives with them and ties up the bathroom for hours while he tries to mechanically suck the puss out of a sebaceous cyst on his neck.
Now Larry’s wife wants a divorce so that she can marry Sy Ableman (get it?) an utterly non-sexy retiree. A running joke is whenever one character slips too far into obscure Yiddish, the other has no idea what they’re talking about.
Early on, Larry’s son has his transistor radio – significantly playing The Jefferson Airplane’s, “Somebody To Love” ("When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you, dies") - confiscated by the school’s headmaster. Along with that he loses the $20.00 with which he meant to pay for his latest lid of pot. So he gets chased home from school every day by his overweight dealer, but never gets caught. The Airplane will pop up in sub-references throughout the remainder.
Larry is at first outraged by a Korean student’s attempted bribe to eliminate an F and lectures him on how actions have consequences. Those consequences will come back around. Even the student warns him against claiming to know too much; "Very uncertain."
There are some cute ongoing jokes, such as how often the characters exclaim “Jesus Christ”, or how every time Larry’s kids are fighting or he walks in late on a scene he says, “What’s going on”. And that is the theme of the movie. Through these rather droll comedic touches, the movie explores in faux-serious fashion the nature of God’s interaction with man. What is going on? But these conflicts are supposed to carry the entire 106 minutes.
The funniest scenes involve Larry seeking help from a series of rabbis. You will recognize Simon Helberg from The Big Bang Theory as the junior rabbi. The first two offer platitudes that invert Larry’s question of “what have I done to deserve this?” to roughly “it’s difficult to know the mind of God” (or Hashem which the special features explain is a term for God in casual conversation), but that really take him nowhere. Jewish or otherwise, they are recognizable in any modern organized religion.
Here in a dream sequence Larry proves the uncertainty principle only to have to face Sy Ableman subbing for Job’s cruel Old Testament God.
Larry gets one brief respite re-connecting with his wife while watching their son’s bar mitzvah. The Coens apparently had full cooperation from a good-natured Minneapolis congregation, including the old guys with the Torah. His son is stoned but gets through it. The Coens then go to an overhead deity shot. Scorsese has called his own use of overhead shots in Taxi Driver “a sacramental perspective” (page 247).
Then comes the only functioning admonition in the movie, “be a good boy”; then another Jefferson Airplane reference; and then it’s back to the darkness.
Whereas “No Country For Old Men” or “Unforgiven” or “Fearless”, or even “Moby Dick” present us with a seemingly blank-faced God and his terrifying engineers and messengers, A Serious Man gives us a divine lab technician with some unpleasant electrical shocks at random points in each of our personal mazes, and then a couple of big ear-smokers when the protagonist finally weakens and makes the wrong turn.
The movie closes with two archetypes of doom; one modern and one ancient; the doctor’s voice on the phone, and the tornado. Perhaps someone is "reaping the whirlwind." The weather is a nice touch for those of us who grew up on the plains like the Coens. Their apparent recognition of their fly-over country roots still charms me.
All the supporting actors are great and Michael Stuhlbarg was nominated for Best Actor. In most ways he’s a little less pitiful and a good deal better looking than Woody Allen. Close your eyes and you’ll swear he’s Matthew Broderick.
The production design recreates 1967 very well. I’m a little young to have a clear opinion on that.
There’s a little voice that tells me this was all a joke to get self-inflated critics to stroke their beards and waste their time pondering the great imponderables while the Coens prepare to pull the rug out from under us. But the story still seems awfully random and only occasionally hilarious. So, IMO, the best American directors in my lifetime (well, maybe Scorsese) had an okay day at the office, had some fun, and we got to watch. They didn’t earn any answers to the questions that they may not have even been seriously asking. Deep, whimsical, heavy? I dunno.
P.S. - I still, on rare occasions, have tornado nightmares unrelated to this movie. Despite my plains life, I've never actually seen one.