Monday, November 9, 2009



As much as I loved this movie, I can't help but wonder how much more I woulda dug it if I wasn't a Goy.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is the titular serious man. He is a physics professor in 1967 Minnesota, thus an educated man. He is surrounded by a son coming up on his bar mitzvah, a daughter who seems to endlessly be going out with her friends, and a brother who is constantly preoccupied by draining a cyst on the back of his neck. Indeed, Gopnik is a family man.

Unfortunately, things aren't completely coming up roses - Larry's wife Judith (Sari Lennick)wants a divorce. It catches Larry very much off guard, making him a sad man. As if to add insult to injury, Larry's wife doesn't just want a divorce, but she feels a kinship with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). She deeply wishes to have Larry grant her a Get (A divorce within the faith), so that she can spiritually move on to be with Sy. The entire situation seems absurd to Larry, leaving him a shocked man.

As if this isn't bad enough, Larry has problems professionally. One of his students cannot accept getting a failing grade and is trying to bribe Larry for a higher mark. This situation couldn't be happening at a worse time, since Larry is up for tenure. Indeed, Larry is a stressed man. With his professional and personal life going topsy-turvy, Larry turns to his faith for answers. He seeks counsel from a multitude of rabbis in an effort to make sense of why God is testing him in this way. He hopes, that by reaching out to the teachers of his heritage, he'll find himself less of an isolated man, and more of a consoled man.

This movie is a celebration of everyday absurdity. Through much of the film, Larry speaks for many of us who don't understand complacency. Larry is the part of us who repeats the same question three or four different way, hoping to eventually get an answer that makes sense. His frustrations are real, and might even seem familiar, so when he rubs his temples in frustration we feel the urge to massage along with him.

Perhaps the best example of this comes when Larry, Judith, and Sy sit down to discuss living arrangements as the divorce is settled. It is suggested that Larry leave the family home and get himself a room at The Jolly Roger - the sort of dive that makes a Motel 6 look swank. The idea makes almost no sense, but Larry gets bullied into it anyway.

This film is an ode to the life of suburban Jews. Jokes in my intro aside, it's not as if only Jewish moviegoers will find this movie rewarding (though I'm sure a bit of Judaism doesn't hurt). Everything from preparing for a bar mitzvah, to Sitting Shivah, to seeking a rabbi's counsel comes into play. And this is all after an odd introduction involving a Jewish folk tale. I dare say that this might well be the most Jewish movie this side of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

The film in its absurdity and peculiarity hearkens back to The Coen Brothers' early work. Indeed, this film has far more in common with FARGO and RAISING ARIZONA than it does O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU and BURN AFTER READING. That's not to say that the latter two are weaker films, just that they're more linear...or at least as linear as the Coen Brothers get.

Edit: After reading Univarn's comment, I realized I had neglected to mention a particular point. The plots and characters in Coen Brothers movies may change from title-to-title...but without a doubt, these films are always Coen Brothers movies. They are quirky, they are off-beat, and they are a particular brand of vodka. It took me a long time to get into their style of film making, so much so that I hated FARGO when I first watched it. With that in mind, their style may well rub you the wrong way. If that's the case, this film won't be the one to help you start seeing the world their way.

One last thing. The Coen Brothers won Oscars for their direction of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Some of you may recall a slight frustration with that movie, what with a rather ambiguous and abrupt ending. Well dear friends, if you thought that was ambiguous and abrupt, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Not to give anything away, but do prepare yourself for and ending that will make NO COUNTRY seem tied in a neat little bow.

Then again, should we expect anything less from the Coen Brothers anymore?

-The Mad Hatter