Job and Oscar-worthy Serious Man?

KATHMANDU: Joel and Ethan Coen inevitably make darkly humourous movies that are sometimes satirical and sometimes abstract but mostly just black.

But even by their standards A Serious Man is in a class by itself: A complete original that is one of the brothers’ best and is up there along side the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men.

After a prologue that is weird and Yiddish we

come to Minneapolis

suburb in 1967 where the Coens grew up.

Says Roger Ebert, “We learn from the Book of Job: Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble”. Such a man is Larry Gopnik. He lectures on physics in front of a blackboard filled with bewildering equations that are mathematical proofs approaching certainty, and in his own life, what can be sure of? Nothing, that’s what.

“This is the kind of picture you get to make after you’ve won an Oscar,” writes Todd McCarthy in Variety. I cannot improve on that. After the seriously great No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers have made the not greatly serious A Serious Man, which bears every mark of a labour of love.”

Adds Jonathan Dean, “The serious man is a good man: Larry Gopnik (the excellent Michael Stuhlbarg), father to highly strung Danny (Aaron Wolff) and mouthy Sarah (Jessica McManus), brother to the useless Arthur (Richard Kind), professor at a local university where a student first tries to bribe him then subsequently sue him and, above all, complacent husband to adulterous wife Judith (Sari Lennick).

He’s in a tailspin. So, feeling a spiritual and personal void he wasn’t previously aware of, Larry heads for God and three different community rabbis of various stature and politeness in order to grasp some crumb of comfort, perhaps word that a blessed afterlife waits for him. “I’ve tried to be a serious man. I’ve tried to do right. Be a member of the community… I need help,” he breaks down. Nice guys finish last.”

Concludes Richard T. Jameson, “Joel and Ethan Coen make movies like nobody else’s. Larry Gopnik is a college physics prof facing a welter of crises and distractions: review by the tenure committee, son Danny’s bar mitzvah, a cryptic-verging-on-sinister protest from a Korean-American student, the alienation of wife Judith’s affections by widower Sy Ableman, the ongoing encroachment of brother Arthur and his sebaceous cyst — and don’t even mention the proto-Nazi who lives next door. All these, and more, form a screenplay of such intricacy that the blackly comic tensions of one shaggy-dog narrative strand leap synapse-like to another. The main-title credits almost flaunt the fact that most of the cast members will be unfamiliar to us (though they all deliver); best known are Richard Kind as Arthur, Adam Arkin as Larry’s divorce lawyer, and Michael Lerner (the studio boss in Barton Fink) doing a hilarious, wordless cameo as Solomon Schlutz. Special praise is due Fred Melamed, seizing the role of a lifetime as the unctuous Sy Ableman; Amy Landecker as Mrs. Samsky, the multifariously zoned-out siren who’s Larry’s other next-door neighbour; and Avi Hoptman as Arlen, Larry’s mealy-mouthed academic colleague who can’t resist hinting at the latest rumblings from the tenure committee, even if he can’t really say anything.”

One of the parables in

A Serious Man applies to all of us and to Larry it’s when a dentist comes across the words “help me” in Hebrew on a gentile’s lower front teeth. The message is in the last line.

Perhaps too inbred for an Oscar but worthy enough A Serious Man is a Coen brothers’ masterwork.