Thursday, November 5, 2009


By D.E.Levine

Directors: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Writers: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Cast: Micael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, Peter Breitmayer, Brent Braunschweig, David Kang, Benjy Portnoe, Jack Swiler, Fyvush Finkel, Alan Mandell, Adam Arkin, Jon Kaminski Jr., Ari Hoptman. Simon Hellberg, George Wyner, Michael Tezia, Allen Lewis Rickman, Yelena Shmulenson, Claudia Wilkens, Simon Helberg et al.
Producers: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Executive Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Robert Graf
Original Music: Carter Burwell
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Country of Origin: United States
Language: English with some Yiddish and Hebrew
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Autobiography

The Coen brothers are known for the diversity of their writing and the wit that they insert into their films. However, since their 13 other films have centered around subjects like Texas mass murders, North Dakota lawmen and lifestyle, Irish mafia, supposed government spies and stoned Los Angeles bowlers, we can never assume that they are writing autobiographical material.

In A Serious Man, their 14th film, the Coen brothers touch on their Midwestern Jewish roots for the first time, returning to their boyhood community in Minneapolis, Minnesota and filming a story about Jewish life.

The film begins with a darkly comic prologue that takes place in the Yiddish language in a 19th century Eastern European shtetl and frames the film for the story that follows.

What follows is the story of Larry Gopnik, a suburban Minneapolis physics professor in 1967, descended from the East European family, who's trials and tribulations (tsuris) can be attributed to the curse placed upon the family by a malevolent spirit (dybbuk).

It must be the curse. Why else would the mild mannered, devoted husband, father and teacher be told by his wife that she's leaving him for a neighbor and wants a Jewish divorce, a get?

Simultaneously, his potential tenure is being anonymously sabotaged by letters to his department head and colleagues, a failing Korean student attempts to bribe him for a grade change, his daughter steals from him, his son steals from his daughter, while instead of studying for his bar mitzvah, his son listens to rock and roll music in Hebrew school and gets stoned on pot, and Larry's slobby, unemployable brother is sleeping on the couch and writing in a book entitled Mentaculus.

Larry is thrown into a spiritual crisis by all of the negative things happening to him. He doesn't find any resolution from the three different rabbis he consults.

Although his own misfortunes seem random, he consuls a wayward student that "actions have consequences". Larry has faith but no understanding of what's happening. He longs to be the "serious man" of the title and yet his wife reserves the term for Sy, the neighbor and friend who steals her from him.

The Coen brothers paint an accurate picture of 1960s life in Jewish America. The spiritual crisis continues although Larry is almost Job-like in his persistence and perseverance.

All things appear to be converging on the day of Danny's (Larry's son) bar mitzvah. Is God going to reveal some important truth to Larry and to the viewers on that day?

Is the film a drama or a comedy? There are plenty of jokes in it although the viewer might need some understanding of Jewish culture to understand them.

The viewer must question whether the Coen brothers are suggesting that we live a nihilistic life. They present a Jewish view of cosmic injustice, where no one person sees the entire picture. In their Jewish American culture the rational is rendered irrelevant by the mystical and throughout it all, Larry Gopnik remains hopeful.