By William Wolf

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2009--'A SERIOUS MAN'  Send This Review to a Friend

This may be the film the Coen brothers were born to make. Although a wry comedy, “A Serious Man,” presented at the 2009 Toronto International Film festival, is also a serious exploration into questions of whether a serious, righteous man can be rewarded by God, assuming there is one, or if no matter how good the person tries to be in the context of living in this universe, he cannot expect reciprocal treatment. Just the opposite. The protagonist in the film that the Joel and Ethan Coen have written and directed is a Job-like character who finds nothing but trouble.

An arresting introduction precedes the unfolding of the story that has the earmarks of a parable. A renowned rabbi in what would appear to be in the old world of European Jews is invited into the home of a man whom the rabbi aided when his wagon broke down. The wife says the rabbi has died and this visitor must by a dybbuk. The visitor says he was ill but is now fine. The unconvinced wife stabs him, and muttering that this is what one gets for a good deed, he begins to bleed and staggers away. Take from this scene what you will, but it feeds the concept of the story that then begins to unfold in a mid-western town in 1967.

The hero, Larry Gopnik, played to perfection by the excellent actor Michael Stuhlberg, is somewhat of a nebbish. Ineffectual defines him. He is a math professor who is up for tenure, but he hasn’t done anything special to get it, such as publishing. He is married, the father of two, and his son is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. He lives as a decent member of the Jewish community, belongs to the synagogue and assumes God exists. But suddenly his world collapses when his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) tells him she now is in love with someone else and their marriage is over. In addition to a civil divorce she needs a “get,” a religious divorce document so that she can marry again in the faith.

Poor Larry. His wife and her new man expect him to move out of the house, and weakling that he is, he moves to a motel. But he also seeks rabbinical advice, and the Coens extract much humor from the series of visits he pursues. The rabbis have no answers except platitudes and questions, which leaves Larry inundated with nothing but bull instead of higher meaning about man and divinity.

Larry is encumbered by other problems as well, including his brother Arthur (Richard Kind), who is a psychological mess, without a job and is getting into trouble with the law for gambling. Larry has been offered a bribe to give a student a passing grade coupled with a threat of being sued for defamation. Larry also gets in a fender bender while driving. Facing an added ridiculous note, he is hounded by a record club who wants payment for an order that his son apparently placed. A sexy woman next door provides temptation as they smoke pot together one day. Then there are the legal fees for a lawyer he needs in connection with the impending divorce. Even more trouble is lurking. Is there any percentage in being a nice guy?

The supporting casting is handled brilliantly as the Coens take us on a tour of what constitutes Jewish life in this sort of a small-town environment. The synagogue scenes are droll, whether for a funeral or a bar mitzvah. One bit is particularly inspired--the dramatized tale of a dentist who discovered that the rear of a gentile’s teeth bear Hebrew letters that translate into a plea for help. (The gentile is referred to by the coarse expression “goy.”) The delineation of this supposed episode is hilarious.

Larry’s problems haunt him in his dreams, which in themselves are a mix of terror and humor. The tone of the film is generally low key as the Coens build the satire even as they explore philosophical issues pondered by a decent fellow searching for answers in vain.

“A Serious Man” is the most sophisticated of Coen brothers’ films, and one gets the feeling that exploring the subject matter must have delighted them. The film should delight audience members too, especially if they happen to be Jewish.


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