Monday, October 26, 2009

A Serious Man

Growing up, I knew the suburbs were out there, but never knew anyone from those places with the storybook names. In college, I made new friends and went to visit their families, many in those neighborhoods with homes that looked eerily alike. One home in particular, made a lasting impression; all of the furniture had custom made, clear plastic covers and even the lampshades had slip cases. I hadn't thought of that suburb or those plastic covers in a long time, but I did while watching the new Joel and Ethan Coen movie, A Serious Man.

A Serious Man opens with a quote attributed to Rashi, "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." This is followed by a grim prologue of an Eastern European couple bickering in Yiddish whether the man who helped fix their broken wagon is in fact an evil spirit. Finally, the main character is introduced and his story begins in a 1960's Minnesota setting during a routine medical exam.

Although he lives in a tidy, Jewish suburb with other families like his own, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor who has a full plate of aggravation. His grating wife wants a divorce, his shrill daughter wants a nose job, his son is fixated on F-Troop, his unemployed brother is staying on too long, his tenure is pending, his neighbor is a bully, a Columbia Records Club salesman pesters him for payment and a student he has failed has presented him with bribe money for a passing grade. Larry is mild mannered, and ineffectual in nearly every confrontation, even as the stress of his life escalates and he is forced to live at a nearby hotel, The Jolly Roger. Over the course of the movie, he visits three rabbis for guidance, but finds little comfort and no inspiration from their long-winded obscure allegories.

If there is humor in the misery of others or abject irony in the random nature of misfortune then A Serious Man manages to be both a comedy and tragedy. In all their films, the Coen brothers present a unique world, and ease their audience into understanding complex characters with equally complicated actions and impulses. While the writing is smart, and the performances are polished, A Serious Man was like that plastic covered room; uncomfortable, severe, and I could hardly wait to leave.

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