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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Comedic Coens get serious with existential new ‘Man’


    The modern moviegoer can never quite anticipate what Joel and Ethan Coen will unleash upon the world next. These are the men who followed up a fluffy, irreverent remake of “”The Ladykillers”” with an ultra-violent, Oscar-winning Cormac McCarthy adaptation, then reprised that with the convoluted and uncompromising pseudo-comedy “”Burn After Reading.””

    What could possibly come next? Perhaps a musical reenactment of Dante’s Inferno set in inner city Detroit?

    Well, as it happens, it’s “”A Serious Man,”” a darkly penetrating tragicomedy of Shakespearian magnitude set in a 1960s Jewish community that holds at its core some of the most universal and bothersome questions of faith, perception and existentialism ever to boggle mankind.

    Yep. That sounds like the Coens.

    Allegedly based on the life and times of Joel and Ethan’s own father, “”A Serious Man”” takes place in a Minnesota suburb and surrounding environs that prove to be as unpredictable as the Coens’ own film tastes.

    The protagonist, Larry Gopnik (portrayed by the exceptionally tortured Michael Stuhlbarg), tries to live life seriously. He provides for his misanthropic family, is an active member of the Jewish community, teaches quantum physics at a local university and otherwise tries to live his life by the seemingly simple rules of mathematics and morality that he has been trained to embrace.

    Both Larry’s faith in the mathematical precision of the universe and God’s own divine plan are soon threatened, however, by a series of unmotivated catastrophes, including brother Arthur’s homelessness and legal troubles, wife Judith’s plea for a ritual divorce that she may remarry the touchy-feely widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a dissatisfied Korean student’s attempts to blackmail Larry and thus complicate his application for tenure, and the myriad of car crashes, heart attacks and general plague of ignorance that seems to permeate his once-rational world.

    The film is structurally divided into a fable-like prologue and three increasingly absurd chapters, designated by Larry’s fruitless (but hilarious) attempts to solicit a series of three rabbis for the answer to that all-important question: what the hell does it all mean? Tangential to Larry’s story is his son Danny’s quest to reclaim a confiscated portable radio that he may survive until his fast approaching bar mitzvah, lest a drug-peddling bully beat the Judaism out of him for a late marijuana payment.

    Aesthetically, “”A Serious Man”” is pure Coen satire. Much like their treatment of the simpleminded desert dwellers in “”No Country for Old Men,”” every single character that appears on screen is a vividly fleshed-out caricature that could easily support a narrative of their own.  Larry’s burly, crew-cut-crowned “”goy”” neighbors, the sexually radiating Grace-Slick-wannabe, Mrs. Samsky, and the decrepit, voluminously-bearded Rabbi Marshak overflow with more personality in their brief screen appearances than most Michael Bay protagonists do in two hours.

    The soundtrack, a mesh of acidy Jefferson Airplane, traditional Hebrew arrangements and a stirring score by Carter Burwell (whose contributions include “”Where the Wild Things Are”” and “”In Bruges”” along with every Coen film ever made), gives the film a haunting edge that only furthers the depth of discussion you’ll surely have with your friends (or rabbi) after the jarring conclusion.

    To a Jewish eye, “”A Serious Man”” is also loaded with enough caricaturized cultural references to fill the Torah, but that will not prevent a secular audience from thoroughly appreciating the underlying questions of faith and uncertainty that elevate the film to a whole new level of Coenesque creation. 

    Though admittedly depressing at times, if only for striking too close to our emotionally-fragile homes, and equipped with a finale that might enrage and confuse those without the select critical mindset aimed for by those artsy Coens, “”A Serious Man”” is perhaps the most dense, personal and endlessly discussable Coen film to date. Seriously.

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