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The Mensch Who Wasn't There

MOVIE REVIEW
A Serious Man (2009)

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Wilson Webb/Focus Features

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) lives the quintessential postwar American dream. He has a nice suburban Minneapolis home, a picturesque family of four and a car all his own. He gets up each morning and goes to work at a university, where he’s being considered for tenure. He’s a pillar of the local Jewish community and fashions himself a success, wholly contended with the direction of his life.

But the year is 1967, it’s the Summer of Love, and the tumult that will upend the social mores of the first two decades of the baby boom has begun brewing. Although “A Serious Man,” the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, only obliquely references the changes manifesting well beyond Larry’s front porch, they’re felt throughout a narrative that finds the bedrocks of the character’s well-heeled life methodically upended. Commencing with quotes from the Jewish scholar Rashi and Jefferson Airplane, the movie brilliantly considers one of the ultimate questions: Is there some order, some higher plan, that shapes our existence, or are we going at it alone?

It’s unusual fare for the Coens, those arbiters of kitschy Americana and cinematic pastiche. They're not usually big-picture artists. It’s also, in the extraordinary specificity of their vision and the poignant empathy with which they regard their protagonist, the most deeply felt, personal movie they’ve made. “A Serious Man” functions as an affecting parable that slyly, subtly carries enormous power in its recognizable portrait of an ordinary man struggling to reconcile his faith with his everyday reality in order to better comprehend the miseries that have befallen him.

The brothers recreate their hometown, the tony suburb of St. Louis Park, and infuse it with a wealth of period detail, down to the prayers said and spiritual leaders leading services at synagogue, the esoteric teaching during religious school and Larry’s flirtatious, swinging next-door neighbor. Enhancing the verisimilitude by surrounding theater vet Mr. Stuhlbarg and Richard Kind, as his dysfunctional brother Arthur, with local professionals and amateurs, the Coens evoke the feel of Midwestern Jewish life with the specificity of an anthropological case study. In portraying the community’s suffocating togetherness, the us-vs.-them sensibility that further prevents Larry from escaping his troubles, the film adeptly depicts the displacement that comes with being, in the defining theme of Jews in the diaspora, strangers in a strange land, far from the hubs of the East Coast.

Beginning with an extended Yiddish scene set in an Eastern European shtetl that features the rooting out of a dybbuk, the movie traverses the terrain of classic Jewish literature. Had Sholem Aleichem or Isaac Bashevis Singer lived in middle America during the 1960s, they might have written something similar to “A Serious Man,” which at its core presents the conflict between Larry’s belief in the life he’s meant to lead and that which circumstances force upon him. His search for answers brings him to three rabbis, who through anecdotes espouse the fundamental Jewish concept of an incorporeal God, one that rejects concrete comprehension. In Larry’s journey, the Coens poke fun at some of the more esoteric components of Judaic theology, the Rabbis answers are often frustratingly abstract, and they ridicule certain aspects of the Jewish experience in America. But their movie is a fundamentally affectionate look at the spiritual and secular worlds that groomed them, and it's also well attuned to the complex contradictions buried in classical Jewish philosophy and tradition.

Still, the specific approach never detracts from the overarching humanist sensibility that’s a striking departure for the Coens. Mr. Stuhlbarg, an invaluable asset, draws out the complicated shadings that underlie his superficially mundane character. His performance exudes the desperation of a lost man swimming upstream. In the perplexed, lonely facial expressions that the actor perfects, one senses the magnitude of the revelation that hits him with gale force: We don’t control our lives; sometimes bad stuff happens we can’t explain; and things can end before we’re ready. It’s best, then, to receive what happens to us with simplicity, as Rashi says, and make the most of it.

A SERIOUS MAN

Opens on Oct. 2 in the United States and on Nov. 20 in Britain.

Written, produced and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Jess Gonchor; released by Focus Features. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Michael Stuhlbarg (Larry Gopnik), Richard Kind (Uncle Arthur), Fred Melamed (Sy Ableman), Sari Lennick (Judith Gopnik), Adam Arkin (Divorce Lawyer), Aaron Wolff (Danny Gopnik), Jessica McManus (Sarah Gopnik).

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