A Serious Man (USA/UK/France; 95 min.)

directed by: Ethan Coen; Joel Coen
starring: Michael Stuhlbarg; Richard Kind; Fred Melamed; Sari Lenrick; Aaron Wolf
A Serious Man

Diane says: "I never realized how much the Coens had in common with David Lynch.
Watching A SERIOUS MAN, I was strongly reminded of the look of BLUE VELVET (oh, because they both start with an ear? but also the crispness and close-ups, thanks to Roger Deakins) and the atmosphere of ERASERHEAD (antihero tries to act normally while life turns nightmarish around him).

"The big q: why does God let us feel all these questions, when he won't tell us the answers?

"Great acting, esp. by Michael Stuhlbarg as lead, Aaron Wolff as his bar-mitzvah-bound son, Sari Lennick as lead's wife, Fred Melamed as his wife's paramour, Ari Hoptman as a fellow prof, and Simon Helberg as the junior rabbi. The posture coach was working really hard on this pic--the way some actors hold their bodies is just amazing! I didn't
like that the Coens made fun of Frances McDormand in FARGO--one of my favorite movie moments.

"Can't say I enjoyed this film. For me, it's in the unpleasant place between laughter and tedium. I'm sure it will be more fun at the Coolidge if there's a big Jewish audience. While it may be critically acclaimed, I'll give it 2 cats. "

Thom says: "While not being Jewish, I still found this superlative effort by the Coen Brothers to be as good as anything they’ve ever made. I gave it a very strong 5 cats. Perfect from beginning to end. I’m only sorry I didn’t get to see it in Toronto because it was a sell-out."

Betsy says: "Hey you don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's Rye bread and you don't have to be to love A SERIOUS MAN  - I saw it in Chicago recently and thought it was sublime - yes the story was one misfortune after another and we've had this Job theme before - but in the Coens hands it is fresh & funny & even nostalgiac. The actors were incredible - every performance a gem. My favorites were of course the serious man, Michael Stuhlbarg; the wife's lover/boyfriend Sy Ableman played by Fred Melamed (who looks a lot like Allen Ginsburg in the movie) and the potsmoking lone wolf housewife next door played by Amy Landecker (daughter of Jon Landecker - famous Chicago DJ -) - My favorite sequence is actually the opener  which sets the tone of black humor and absurdity about  a dybbuk who is brought home by a peasant. The peasant's wife is hilarious as she tried to prove that the old  guy her husband welcomes home is actually dead. Maybe I was just in a macabre, deadpan, black humor mood and that's just me, but I could see it again. 4 1/2 cats"

Marilyn replies: "I am looking forward to seeing this but I recognize that the Coen brothers always deliver unlikable characters in complex edgy roles that keep us on the outside looking in.  This separation allows us to laugh at the situations but we never really feel any empathy for the characters. We do not like the people in the Coen movies...find them funny, yes but I have never cried seeing one of their movies and I cry at commercials."

Scot replies; 'I like Marge Gunderson. And the O BROTHER character who says, 'We...thought...you...was...a...frog!' I like him too."

Hilary replies: "I think you might be able to muster up some empathy for Larry Gopnik (up to a certain plot point). This guy just keeps getting kicked while he's down. Even though '[he] hasn't done anything!'

"This is a somewhat puzzling film, but in a different way from most of the Coens' other work. I enjoyed it, but I'm sure there were plenty of things that went over my head regarding both Judaism/mysticism/kabbalah vis-a-vis Uncle Arthur's 'Mentaculus' and some Minnesota in-jokes.

"I just realized what an odd group the last three Coen films are: NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, BURN AFTER READING, and now A SERIOUS MAN. Wow.

"Fun facts to know and tell: I recently read in the Globe that the actor who plays the son, Danny, is a student at Newton South High School."

Jeff replies: "My own opinion, of course, but to the contrary, and regardless of whatever motivated them, I liked (and in various cases, admired, sympathized with, and, yes, occasionally laughed at):

H.I. McDunnough, Edwina McDunnough, Norville Barnes, Amy Archer (eventually), Waring Hudsucker, Moses, Marge Gunderson, Norm Gunderson, The Dude, Walter Sobchak, 'Donny' Kerabatsos, Everett, Pete, Delmar, Tommy Johnson, Penny, Pappy O'Daniel, Ed Tom Bell, Llewelyn Moss, Carla Jean Moss, and Ted Treffon.

"I know it's fashionable to regard the Coens as mere craftsmen, but it's their moviemaking prowess that continually entrances me. On those grounds, call me a cold fish I guess, I'll cop to it. I liked Kubrick, too."

Jo replies: "You had to like Marge in FARGO, didnt you? She was such an original and deeply human character i thought. FARGO is still my fav coen bros movie. i couldnt get myself to see NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. I rarely see violent movies. tho I love THE SOPRANOS and THE GODFATHER, go figure.

"I thought marge was one of the most positive portrayals of a modern woman. she was great at her job, had a really nice home life and  was extremely pregnant to boot."

Chris replies: "Aaron Wolff, the local actor who played Danny, actually came to the Coolidge for the opening night screening last week.  Unfortunately, I was not there and have yet to see the film.

"But, I do think this discussion over how the Coens view their characters is fascinating.  What makes the Coens tricky is how much they distance themselves from the characters; you rarely feel that one of them is a stand-in for Joel or Ethan.  There are instances when I wish they were less ambiguous (for instance, is Barton Fink a person or an idea?), but there are others, such as Marge from FARGO, or Tommy Lee Jones' character in NO COUNTRY, where it's far clearer who the protagonist (and in the latter's case, the moral center) is."

Michael says: "Now that’s the kind of Chlotrudis discussion I LIVE to see!  It’s like the old days, don’t you agree, Marilyn?

"Thanks to Betsy for kicking things off with that terrific review.  I can’t wait to see the film now.

"And I have to join Scot and Jo and others who sing the praises of Marge Gunderson, one of the most sympathetic and heroic characters ever created.  I adored her thoroughly, for her consummate professionalism, for her empathetic nature, for her eternal optimism, and for her admirable pragmatism."

Marilyn replies: "Yes Michael....I thought that might get things going....BTW I love the Coen Brothers and wouldn't miss one of their movies but they do have a detached style....come on---- admit it."

Bruce says: "Imagine if Woody Allen had made AMERICAN BEAUTY and reset it in sixties in the Minneapolis/St. Paul suburbs and you can envision the Coen brothers’ A SERIOUS MAN.  From the opening fable about evil forces invading hearth and home to the closing credits claiming 'No Jews were harmed during the filming…' the Coens poke fun at the world in which they grew up. 

"Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor hoping for tenure at a local college.  He is a suburbanite through and through.  A house and a wife (Judith, played by Sari Lennick) with the requisite two children - older girl, younger boy – how lucky can a man be?  The ranch houses in his development are sprawling but the streets are bleak, a shared tree for every four houses.   The neighbor to the left has a traveling husband; she spends her time sunbathing nude in the back lawn.  The neighbors on the right are goys.  The father is a Marine looking type who wears camouflage when taking his pre-teen son on deer hunting trips.   Son Danny (Aaron Wolff) goes to Hebrew School where his transistor radio has recently been confiscated in class.  It is understood that the family needs not invest such high sums for a daughter (Jessica McManus) who only cares about how her hair looks.  Larry’s brother Arthur (Richard Kind), an unemployable genius, has come to stay.  He sleeps on the living room sofa and spends huge amounts of time draining his sebaceous cyst in the one bathroom which all five share. 

"Like a bolt from the blue, Judith announces that she has been seeing Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) a recently widowed (well, in some circles three years is considered recent) neighbor and member of their synagogue.  In fact, she wants a divorce as she already has plans to marry Sy.  Larry is flabbergasted.  Soon Larry and Arthur are kicked out and are sharing a room at the Jolly Roger Motel. 

:At school Larry stands in front of a chalkboard of billboard size.  On it are scribbled scores of formulas, keywords and catch phrases.  He tells his students they cannot understand physics without understanding the math.  Clive Park, a South Korean student arrives in Larry’s office to discuss alternatives to his receiving a failing grade.  He wants to retake the mid-term exam; an unmarked envelope filled with large bills appears on Larry’s desk.  Clive understands the math.  Larry is constantly receiving messages from the Columbia Record Club that his payments are overdue.  Sy wants to have a tête-à-tête with Larry.  His department head pops his head in the door to tell Larry that the tenure committee has been receiving anonymous letters about Larry that 'really don’t mean a thing regarding your tenure but I thought you should know.'  Larry is flummoxed by all these events.

"Larry seeks advice from his rabbi.  When he arrives he is shown into the office of the rabbi’s assistant.  Larry explains his plight in several ways: 'Everything I thought was one way turns out to be another.'  'The carpet has been yanked from under me.'  'I don’t know which way is up.'  The young rabbi soothes Larry by telling him that all events are 'an expression of God’s will.'  'The boss isn’t always right but he’s still the boss,' the rabbi says with a wink.  Larry’s lawyer shrugs and says 'I always thought you and Judy were rock solid.'  Back at the synagogue Larry finally gets to see the head rabbi.  He tells of a goy going to a Jewish dentist.  'Help me,' is carved inside his lower teeth.  'What does that mean?' Larry asks.  'What does anything mean?' replies the rabbi.  Larry in his road of discovery learns that his quiet little sphere is populated with infidelity, dishonesty, and irrational behavior.  His son learns his lesson as well – from a third rabbi, the elusive, wise aged one, although this lesson arrives as a surprise both to Danny and the audience.  In effect, it turns the film into a one-line joke.

"A rooted as this film is in the sixties traces of the 21st Century drift into the script.  For example, the F word is used way too much in casual conversation.  A SERIOUS MAN is a cautionary tale for those who wish to return to more innocent times.  Turns out the old days weren’t all that innocent.  We were just naïve and ignorant.    4 cats"