A Serious Man
Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
God bless the Coen brothers. They have devilish fun playing with their characters and their audiences.
Even after all sorts of awards and other accolades, the Coen brothers can't be accused of going mainstream, which is itself an accomplishment worth celebrating. That stance stays true with A Serious Man, which starts right smack dab in the middle of left field; it's so offbeat, it's actually questionable if the projectionist started up the right movie.
The opening sequence is shot in an old-timey 1.33:1 aspect ratio, a sly way of indicating it's either a) a foreign movie, b) the story takes place a long time ago, or c) both.
It's a frigid, snowy Polish setting. It's subtitled and the story is already in progress, with a man and his wife talking about the Zohar and Krakow and dybbuks. Then a rabbi pays a visit and...
Fast forward to 1967 Minneapolis, when and where Larry Gopnik's a high school physics teacher, going over the finer points of Schrodinger's Paradox on a massive, multi-panel blackboard covered from top to bottom with all sorts of mystical equations.
Is the cat dead? Or is it not dead? In either case, poor Larry's still paying for his ancestors' transgressions (and in full 1.85:1, to boot).
O Coen Brothers
The Brothers Coen
Photo: Focus Features
Ever since their debut film, Blood Simple, 25 years ago, Joel and Ethan Coen have managed to avoid the huge suck of brain dead Hollywood entertainment; Intolerable Cruelty possibly being their closest attempt at flirting with mass appeal. Instead, many of their movies achieve cult status, most notably The Big Lebowski, after being missed by the masses in theaters.
It's also interesting to think they've collaborated with another quirky filmmaker who did go mainstream, Sam Raimi, when they co-wrote The Hudsucker Proxy, among other tangential collaborations.
Here the Coen brothers unleash the best Woody Allen movie Woody Allen had absolutely nothing to do with. It's a rumination on their Jewish heritage; much like O Brother Where Art Thou? was an unlikely retelling of Homer's Odyssey, this one revisits the Book of Job and questions heavy topics like God and evil with a deftly humorous hand.
Unlike Homer, though, Job doesn't share in the writing credits.
It's easy to picture Larry Gopnik being played by a youthful Woody Allen. Instead, Michael Stuhlbarg (Body of Lies) ably takes his character's pain and spreads it over each and every seat in the theater.
What is his pain?
O where to begin… His wife's having an affair and wants him to move into a motel (even though her romantic entanglement lives in a much bigger house). His brother is a live-in liability. A South Korean student is attempting to bribe Gopnik into giving him a passing grade in order to preserve his scholarship. A hot female neighbor proves to be a temptress while she sunbathes totally in the buff. The neighbor on the other side is violating their property lines in order to build a shed.
But, more importantly, the Columbia Record Club is pestering poor Larry for non-payment and, for the love of God, the TV reception during F Troop sucks!
Well, at least on that last count Larry was able to soak in the glorious view of his naked neighbor while tinkering with the rooftop TV antenna.
Back to Basics
Larry (left) embraces his wife's lover.
Photo: Focus Features
"Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you," Rashi advises, and that serves as the movie's opening title card. It's good advice from a famed rabbi who lived some 900 years ago.
But what the Coen brothers have here is a movie about being Jewish that transcends all faiths. It's the kind of material all can relate to, whether the faith is Catholic, Muslim, Hindu or other.
And, smartly enough, the Coen brothers don't even pretend to have all the answers. Or even one answer… Instead, a suggestion or two suffice nicely as Larry comes to realize sometimes a guy simply has to stand up and help himself.
In No Country for Old Men, the Coens happily worked in a moviemaking mode seldom seen since the '70s, when movies didn't have to have a happy ending and, actually, the tragic or completely uncertain ending was warmly received. Same goes here. The ending is a humdinger that offers the not-so-warm reassurance that all the trials and tribulations will continue (but not in a sequelly kind of way, that'd be way too contemporary for the Coens).
Indeed, the black humor runs dark and deep throughout A Serious Man and continues right on through to the tippy-toes of the end credits, which include the note that "No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture."
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.