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Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Serious Man

Larry Gopnik, the Jewish physics professor whose misfortunes form the central narrative of A Serious Man, wants you to know that he didn't do anything. The film, the latest from the Coen brothers, deals with the question of whether or not "I didn't DO anything" is a valid excuse.

Larry didn't do anything to drive his wife into the arms of another man, but by not doing anything to get his unemployed brother off their coach he may have increased the distance between them. He didn't do anything to put his tenure status in danger, but he didn't publish any papers that may have secured it. In a humorous bit, Larry didn't do anything in regards with the Columbia Record Club, but that's precisely why he keeps receiving the Record of the Month. In front of his students Larry uses the famous Schrodinger's Cat story, in which a cat is both dead and alive inside an unopened box. In his own life Larry seems not to want to open the box and find out how things really are.

Is inactivity the reason for Larry's misfortunes? The Coen brothers don't explicitly answer that question, and neither do the series of advisers whom Larry seeks out in his increasing desperation. These include an aging progression of rabbis and a contingent of lawyers. None of their parables or pieces of advice prove helpful. A scene where a rabbi tells a nonsensical story about a dentist and engraved teeth, only to reveal that there is no conclusion to the story, is especially prescient.

A Serious Man is a damn impressive movie, and one that Coen brothers fans will absolutely love. The humor is blacker than black, as its possible to interpret the film as promoting the idea of a meaningless and cruel universe. And yet I found myself laughing throughout the film, even as I sympathized with Larry's plight. Michael Stuhlbarg plays exasperation perfectly, and several supporting players are also really good. The actor playing "the other man" stands out especially.

I was, at the moment, a little upset with the ending, although with a little distance it makes perfect sense. The Coens do risk going to the ambiguous ending well a little too often, but I can forgive them that as long as they crank out such appealing, humorous, and well, serious films. 9.6 out of 10

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