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Movie Review

A Serious Man

Something about Larry: In the painfully funny ‘Serious Man,’ the Coens throw the book at a suburban dad

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / October 9, 2009

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The other day, a colleague of mine called the Coen brothers “Stanley Kubrick’s grandchildren,’’ and he didn’t mean it as a compliment. He was referencing the cold, almost inhuman brilliance the filmmakers share; the cynicism that allows no emotion beyond the unforgiving laugh. (The songs of Steely Dan also came up, and that makes sense, too: Any major dude will tell you Becker and Fagen and Ethan and Joel share pop-culture DNA, crafting works of mysterious pleasure while sneering at greater meaning.)

Can art come from jadedness? Will the brothers ever “mean it’’? “A Serious Man’’ forces the issue in ways that will either floor you or drive you batty. There are Coen movies that are inconsequential goofs (that would be “Burn After Reading’’), and there are the ones that count. This is one of the ones that count, and it’s a work of cruel comic genius, in some ways even crueler than “No Country for Old Men.’’ Some have already labeled the film despicable. I think it’s Jewish Bergman and one of their very best movies - a pitch-black Old Testament farce in which God is either absent, absent-minded, or mad as hell. It’s a film to haunt you for a long time to come.

The year is 1967, the place the flat, plastic suburban grid of St. Louis Park, outside of Minneapolis. The hero is a college physics professor named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), married with children, open-faced and earnest. He’s on the tenure track; his son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), is about to be bar mitzvahed; the world is in order and Larry is content. Enter the Coens, with banana peel.

“A Serious Man’’ has been compared (over-compared, really) to the Book of Job. Larry’s wife (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for a pompous widower (Fred Melamed), and someone is sending poison-pen letters to the tenure committee. There are minor and major car accidents; a bribery attempt; there’s a brother (that wonderful sad sack Richard Kind) who has been living on the couch for months, sinking into a morass of psychosis and sebaceous cysts.

The children are self-absorbed horrors; the man from the Columbia Record Club never stops calling. Bad things keep happening, and why? Is Larry’s serial misfortune meant to test his faith? To force him to acknowledge a godless universe? To get him to stop being such a schlemiel?

The Coens refuse to tip their hand, admitting to all interpretations and none. In their younger days, they might have simply enjoyed tormenting Larry like a bug under a magnifying glass, much as they once did to poor Barton Fink, Larry’s most obvious ancestor. “A Serious Man’’ has a bigger, even cosmic heft to its rhythms and images, though - a gravity that tends equally toward Kafka and the Bible. Why else does the film begin with a hilarious but troubling parable about an ancient rabbi (Fyvush Finkel) who may or may not be inhabited by a wandering lost soul known as a dybbuk? This prologue ends with a question the rest of the film gnaws at: Which one of us is possessed? Do we live in an unjust universe or are we fools, unserious men, to think it could ever be otherwise? Thus reads the Book of Larry.

“A Serious Man’’ grows in both playful aggravation and existential grandeur as it unfolds. Larry’s neighbors provide the most unsettling comedy: On one side is a goy brute (Peter Breitmayer) with a 10-point buck tied to his car roof, and on the other is the local Mrs. Robinson (Amy Landecker), who sunbathes nude, smokes pot, and has eyes that promise annihilation. Because the Coens maintain such unholy control over their craft, Larry’s travails have a bewitching, dreamlike clarity that occasionally tips into the surreal, as in a scene at the Canadian border where his ethnic paranoia finally erupts.

This is a film about, among other things, being a Jewish man in 1960s America - about the identity you’ve left behind in the shtetl, the identity you want to forge for yourself, the identity you can neither quite shake nor shape. On the soundtrack, Cantor Rosenblatt wars with the howls of the Jefferson Airplane for supremacy. Larry seeks advice from three rabbis (young, old, ancient) that evaporates as soon as it’s given. Because this is the Coens, neither gentleness nor realism are on the menu; the brothers toy with the fire of ethnic stereotypes in ways that at times seem calculated to offend, with monstrous close-ups of unlovely faces. You can practically smell the kreplach in the kitchen.

Are the Coens being pilloried for visualizing what writers like Philip Roth have put into words? I would argue that there’s a precision of detail to the movie’s suburban grotesques that is almost awe-inspiring and is, in fact, something very close to love - the way a drooping eyelid, a pendulous earlobe, a pair of cat-eye glasses can be seen by a child mesmerized by a fallen world. You get the same feeling looking at illustrator Drew Friedman’s warts-and-all renderings of Borscht Belt comedians: a sense of horrified wonder that simultaneously mocks and venerates the schlock and struggles of the assimilationist generation.

The brothers’ art took a quantum leap with “No Country,’’ in which they brilliantly mimicked another man’s nihilism, that of author Cormac McCarthy. With this film they bring it all back home. “A Serious Man’’ is, above all, a memory play, and the closest we may ever get to a personal memo from the Coens. They grew up in the Minneapolis suburbs and have acknowledged that Larry is in character and spirit close to their father, which of course makes 13-year-old Danny Gopnik their own stand-in.

In many ways, the Coens are still Dannys, still maladjusted ranch-house brats laughing at the normals and showing up to the bar mitzvah stoned. Yet they’re old enough to see the cataclysm coming and old enough to understand it will spare no one. The final moments of “A Serious Man’’ are pitiless and breathtaking, and they offer no comfort at all. In a culture addicted to giving us the good news, such profound comic bleakness feels cleansing and true. Today the Coens become a man.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

A SERIOUS MAN Written and directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen

Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed

At: Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, West Newton

Running time: 105 minutes

Rated: R (language, some sexuality/nudity, brief violence)

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