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Movie Review: A Serious Man

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Joel and Ethan Coen have been very prolific filmmakers over the past two decades. Over that span they have delivered a number of great films (Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?). During the same period they have also been behind some not so great films (The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty). The best thing about the brothers is that even at their worst, they still turn in films that exist outside of the Hollywood machine. Their ability to remain independent should be applauded. This allows them to create films like A Serious Man, a film that lands decidedly in the middle of good and bad.

A Serious Man is an interesting film that I am positive I do not completely get. I walked in unsure of what it was going to be. My sole source of knowledge was the trailer, which is pretty fantastic if you ask me. Well, there I went, into that darkened theater looking forward to this latest Coen creation.

For the better part of two hours, I sat there mystified by what transpired. What was I watching? It all began with an opening sequence that I could not reconcile with the rest of the film. It is set in Poland some time in the past. A man comes home and tells his wife of an amazingly fortuitous happening while out on the road. He is beaming, but his wife lays a bomb on him. Yes, it is an odd opening that I am sure means something to the rest of the movie, but I could not tell you what.

I could be accused of watching movies merely on the surface. I often find it difficult to pierce the veil between what the movie is and what the movie is about. I think I have gotten better at it over the years, but there are still moments where that veil is more like a brick wall around a panic room. That is what A Serious Man was like for me. I got some of it, I liked some of it, but I am not quite able to ultimately get what the big picture is really about.

At the center of the story is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a community college in a primarily Jewish community in Minnesota. He has tried to live his life as a serious man, doing his best to live up to a high moral code. That code is about to be tested, to be pushed to its breaking point by a series of events that will forever change the way he lives his life.

Larry believes in order, that there is a purpose for everything and everything can be explained, much like the complicated mathematical proofs that he teaches. So, when life begins to spiral out of his grasp he is lost at sea. He does not know where to turn and those he does seek help from seem to know less than he does.

He must deal with his wife, who has asked for a divorce and is cheating with a family friend, a son who listens to rock music at Hebrew school and is constantly chased by a pot-dealing classmate, a daughter who is stealing money for a nose job, a disgruntled student who is trying to bribe and sue him at the same time, and a tenure committee that is receiving anonymous libelous letters about him. Phew. That is a lot for one man to deal with, not to mention other speed bumps that he encounters along the way.

Worse than all of these things happening to him is the fact that they all come up at the same time. Larry is battered and bruised from everything that is going on. He does all that he can do to keep his head above water. The question is, is it enough?

I understand the idea that it can be a futile exercise to keep life fully ordered. You cannot predict everything and need to be able to adapt. This would seem to be Larry's biggest issue. He stands so long on logic and proof that he is unable to adapt.

I feel fairly certain that the Coens are saying something more than we cannot plan for everything. There is definitely more to it. Unfortunately I cannot pierce that veil of understanding. Perhaps with multiple viewings the murky depths will become clear.

Even without "getting it" this is a pretty good movie and one well worth seeing. It is the Coens, so you can be sure there will be interesting scenes to watch. However, the best part of the movie has to be Michael Stuhlbarg. His expressions, reactions, and all around demeanor are pitch perfect. He kind of reminds me of David Paymer, who I could have seen in this role ten years ago.

Bottom line. This is worth seeking out by those who like movies that have more beneath the surface than would appear at first glance. It is a movie that is decidedly different from the mainstream. A Serious Man offers laughs, drama, and more. It may not be a great film, but it is an interesting one. My inability to completely understand is more my fault than the filmmakers', but it still lessens the overall impact on me and my ability to fully enjoy the feature.

Mildly Recommended.

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