A Serious Man (Focus Features, R)

film_serious-man_sm.gifA Serious Man plays more or less like its (very good) trailer.

 

 

 

 

 

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I have a long-held theory that if you ever hear someone describe a movie as "stupid," you can pretty safely assume two things: one, that the person who said that is stupid, and two, that the movie in question is smart. Think about it: "stupid" seems to be the adjective of choice when a movie doesn’t immediately make sense, so any film that requires consideration after the film ends to piece together goes over the head of the folks who are used to everything following a very strict and recognizable formula. Some films that I’ve heard described as "stupid" most often of late are films such Pi, Rushmore and Synecdoche, New York; films that could more reasonably be called stupid, like most Adam Sandler comedies, for example, are usually both enjoyed by stupid people and accused of being something more specific than just "stupid" by smart people.

The new Coen Brothers film, A Serious Man, is bound to be accused of being stupid under just these circumstances. I’ve come across an alarming number of mainstream audiences who bristled at the Coens’ relatively mainstream (and not to mention brilliant) 2007 Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men; how are we to expect them to react to the closest film they’ve made to 1991’s Barton Fink since, well, Barton Fink?

A Serious Man plays more or less like its (very good) trailer: A Jewish man named Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) has all kinds of problems: a wife who’s leaving him for his best friend (a very funny Fred Melamed), a tenure-track job as a college professor on the line, rabbis who won’t listen. On top of the bits in the trailer, Larry’s also plagued by a son who smokes pot instead of focusing on school, and a daughter who is stealing money to get a nose job; one neighbor seems anti-Semitic while his other neighbor is something of a temptress; he has a student who is trying to bribe him into giving him a good grade; etc. All of these are relatively normal human problems and Larry seems capable of handling each of them individually, but the onslaught of all of them at once is slowly eroding Larry’s ability to function. The Coens manipulate the audience using a very unusual sort of dumb tension as we watch Larry try his best to keep his head above water.

As of this writing, I have only seen A Serious Man once, and I am sure I did not get anywhere near all there is to get out of it from that one screening. Of course, I view that attribute as a good thing. It’ll be fun to revisit it and see if I can unlock some of its puzzles…anyway, the fact that I couldn’t the first time around certainly didn’t keep it from being a hell of a lot of fun to watch. | Pete Timmermann

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