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10.28.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Wilson Webb
IN CASE OF EMERGENCY: Michael Stuhlbarg's Larry Gopnik tries to make his case in an absurd world.

Torment

The Coen brothers explore the downside of not being God in 'A Serious Man.'

By Richard von Busack


IT'S A VERY SERIOUS movie, A Serious Man. All the themes in the Coen brothers' previous films blend harmoniously. Here they reconcile the warring impulses to create apocalyptic tragedy and screwball comedy. Here, as in Raising Arizona, is the startling cartoon flatness of the United States. Here is the hideo-comic wrath of Americans and the way the temper flares up so suddenly in whimsical, friendly men. Here is the balance--as in Fargo--of what morality costs and what it's worth. A Serious Man is a vast Jewish joke that follows Kafka's suggestion that in the struggle between you and the world, back the world.

The action unfolds in suburban Minneapolis in 1967, close to the place and the time in which the Coen brothers grew up. In high-angle shots, the neighborhood is as remote as Mars: wide empty streets, square houses embedded in crabgrass and seething neighbors.

A meek professor, Larry Gopnik (stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg, looking like a dispirited Harold Lloyd), teaches physics at a small college. As was the case for "Lucky Jim" Dixon, Gopnik is tantalized with the possibility of tenure by the head of the math board, a monster of passive aggressiveness.

One afternoon, a Korean exchange student tries to bribe Gopnik into a passing grade. Thus begins the siege against Larry. Larry's wife announces that she's deeply in love with their neighbor Sy Ableman, a clammy, polyester-clad swine; Fred Melamed's unforgettable acting depends heavily on an oleaginous voice, though this touchy-feely home wrecker is appalling on so many other levels. Larry must move to the Jolly Roger Motel. With him comes his unemployable brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), an obese holy fool with weaknesses of the flesh.

For reverse angles, the Coens follow Larry's son Danny (Aaron Wolff) and the boy's cowlike indifference about his father's woes. The marital struggles are but interferences from Danny's own routines of watching F-Troop, smoking marijuana and trying cheat his way through his upcoming bar mitzvah. Larry gets the promise of mercy from his next-door neighbor (Amy Landecker), a bronzed, deadpan siren who, like Danny, is tuned in to the San Francisco sound.

Some postmodern moments give A Serious Man a vaudeville kick: a prologue about the appearance of a demon in the old-time Jewish ghetto is staged like a lost episode of Mario Bava's Black Sabbath. In another of this film's parables, a God carves a Hebrew message into the teeth of a gentile to teach--what?--some indecipherable lesson, like the physics equations on Larry's chalkboard, like the Hebrew letters Danny is too dumb to learn. Even the leer of the Red Owl drugstore sign, peering out of the screen, seems pregnant with terrible meaning.

What seemed like caricature in the earlier Coens is softer here. A Serious Man suggests very lightly that there might be some hope in the old rituals, something basic and kind. Photographer Roger Deakins and composer Carter Burwell do wonderful work making these episodes coalesce into a powerful fever dream of persecution and encroachment.

As in Kafka, every avenue of escape is displayed just so the workers can rush over and nail up the "No Exit" sign. And as when reading Kafka, what keeps one from sinking into despair is the rich, heady humor. A Serious Man throbs with age-old mysteries to which one can only succumb, with the hope of being released into pain-free nothingness.


Movie Times A SERIOUS MAN (R; 105 min.), directed and written by Ethan and Joel Coen, photographed by Roger Deakins and starring Michael Stuhlbarg, plays at the Nick.


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