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Movie Review

A Serious Man

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A Serious Man
On the surface, "A Serious Man" appears to be Joel and Ethan Coen's most subdued and accessible film to date. Yet underneath its 1960s Midwestern suburban setting (supposedly based on the Coens' childhood) lies a very strange movie that will leave audiences with more questions than answers. For some filmgoers, such as myself, this (along with the infusion of Yiddish) is an asset, but those expecting a plot that easily explains it all will leave the theater scratching their heads in frustration. If there is one thing you will take away from the film it is this: Bad things happen to good people for no reason. To ask why is futile. Or as the Yiddish adage goes, "Man plans, God laughs."

The film centers on protagonist Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a mild-mannered physics professor who, until now, has led a safe, relatively content, mundane life with his middle-class Jewish family. However, Gopnik's quiet world is about to quickly spin out of control in more ways than he thought possible. The chaos that ensues include a bribe from a failing student; Gopnik's wife announcing that she wants a divorce and him out of the house; his unstable, dependent brother clashing with the law; his sexy neighbor who prefers to sunbathe in the nude; and consultations with his temple's rabbis that leave Gopnik further lost. Oy gevalt!

The film also follows Larry's son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), through rites of Jewish and teenage passage—including surviving Hebrew school and the school bully, becoming a bar mitzvah, getting sage advice from an elder rabbi, and getting stoned while doing all of the above.

It doesn't sound like enough to make an exciting movie, yet the film builds as a mystery of sorts and keeps us engaged throughout. Subtlety is key. And as the Coens are known for infusing their work with dry wit, their latest offering will not disappoint in the humor department.

Not surprising for a Coen movie, this ensemble is top-notch and welcomingly strays from the Coens' recurring stable of character actors. It is also refreshing that most of the actors in the film are not very recognizable, with the exception of Adam Arkin as Larry's sympathetic divorce lawyer and Richard Kind as Uncle Arthur, Larry's sad-sap whack job of a brother. Standouts among the cast include Fred Melamed as Sy Ableman, the hip widower who steals Larry's wife while trying to keep it civil with Larry; Sari Lennick as Judith, Larry's discontented wife; and Alan Mandell as Rabbi Marshak, the "Yoda" of Larry's temple. Stuhlbarg and Wolff also give strong performances. Best scene-stealer award goes to Claudia Wilkens as Marshak's tough-as-nails secretary.

Genre: Comedy/Drama.
Written and directed by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen.
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Adam Arkin.

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