INTERACTIVE (Rate the Review) . "A Serious Man"

Here's the problem...

The Coen brothers Joel and Ethan have, as co-writer-directors, put forth a central figure, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose wife Judith (Sari Lennick) informs him that because of their (undetailed) "problems," she has become involved with another man and wants a divorce. The other man is Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who's name causes Larry and everyone else who knows Larry to say in loud, derisive tones, "Sy Ableman?!!" as though the concept is beyond understanding.

Larry is the kind of guy who, when Sy and Judith ask for a meeting to discuss what the new dynamic in their lives will mean to all of them, takes the meeting. He's the kind of guy who allows Sy, a self-styled guru, to swarm and overwhelm him, grasping and touching him unnecessarily in gloppy attempts to control his decisions through tactile emanations, and who submits to this intimidation and Judith's every demand after mere whispers of complaint.

Thus, Larry is the one who, at first, sleeps on a cot and then moves to a motel so that Sy can move into his house. When Larry musters the guts to suggest Judith move in with Sy, at his place, the new couple's horror at such a suggestion closes the topic.

Larry is a physics professor at a quiet Midwestern university where he's up for tenure in the fall of 1967. It's the end of the semester and he's handed out final grades. Unfortunately, he's had to fail one student, Clive Park (David Kang), who in a private meeting expresses his shock and disappointment at what this will mean to his life and career. He can't understand it, even when professor Larry explains that it's based on his failing grade on the math portion of the midterms.

Finally, unresponsive to the role math plays in physics, Clive stands and departs, whereupon Larry discovers a plain white envelope that no one but Clive could have put there. It's full of one hundred dollar bills. Subsequently, Larry tries to return it but Clive inscrutably refuses to acknowledge it. Subsequent to that, Clive's father shows up on Larry's front walk threatening to sue the prof for defamation. Larry has not managed to return the bribe, he doesn't threaten a counter suit, and he doesn't report it to the police in order to protect his good name. Typically, he remains inert about it, just as he is with so many crises in his life.

Larry's has moved his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) into the house. Arthur is dysfunctional in all respects including that of getting a job. About all he can do is be a drain on Larry. Son Danny (Aaron Wolff), who is studying for his Bar Mitzvah, is tolerant of his slothful uncle, while daughter Sarah, (Jessica McManus) who is filching money from dad's wallet in order to save up for a nose job, can't stand unc's overlong occupation of the bathroom, an area she has staked out for her hair washing needs. As for Judith, she just wants Arthur gone, along with Larry.

This is not just a black comedy--it's a bleak comedy and no less so for putting us in the company of such a submissive dork. In the words of his tribe, a schmuck. Bleakness of character does not command concern, caring or attraction unless the raw charisma of the actor provides an ingredient beyond the scripted framework. Stuhlbarg, whose perfect portrayal of the story's requirements down to chalking mathematical formulae like an advanced genius, doesn't take us there. He was a Tony Award nominee and can certainly act, but his dry straightforwardness doesn't move the needle of emotional attachment by one click.

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So, what's the problem? There is plenty of wry, sardonic humor, much of it based on the peculiarities of Jewish convention and stereotypes within the secular atmosphere of American life. The bemusements of family turmoil, nebbishy ambition in academia, consultations with three rabbis and one lawyer, and the universality of self-absorption demonstrate that the Coen's love of satire is intact, but with a guy to whom you're too unattached for a warm hug.

Meaning that it isn't likely to expand the following that the Coens have built up with their works of satiric genius like "Fargo," and dramatic genius like "No Country For Old Men." It's been a while since they knocked it out of the park with a satiric comedy and this sails over our heads much like "Burn After Reading" did. Though I'm not exactly demanding my ticket back, it's a yawner.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Michael Stuhlbarg
A submissive dork and we're stuck with him.

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