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Oct. 8 2009 - 12:56 pm | 278 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

A Serious Man: Schrödinger’s Jew

"Do you take advantage of the new freedoms?"

"Do you take advantage of the new freedoms?"

Back in 2000, the Coen brothers were nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a movie based — or so its opening credits claimed — “upon the book THE ODYSSEY, by HOMER.” The Coens, puckish as ever in interviews, admitted (or boasted) that in fact they had never read The Odyssey. It’s disappointing that the Coens’ new film, A Serious Man, doesn’t sport a credit claiming to be based “upon the book of JOB, by GOD,” but don’t be surprised if the Academy gets fooled again. Though far more, well, serious than the sepia-toned goofball epic that was O Brother, A Serious Man is just as cheeky in its free adaptation of a story we all know deep in our bones: The man whose faith is tested; the poor sap who looks up to the sky, pleading for the suffering to stop, only to have a bird shit in his eye. And then the whirlwind comes.

Set in the Minnesota Jewish community of the Coens’ childhood, A Serious Man is fastidiously particular in its time (1967) and place (the flat Midwestern suburb in its too-brief summer) but pleasingly open-ended in its philosophy. “What does Hashem want from me?” asks this story’s Job, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a put-upon math professor, using the term for “God” employed by everyone in the movie’s world. Someone’s sending denunciations of Larry to the tenure committee, and a disgruntled student may be trying to bribe him, or sue him. His son spends Hebrew school smoking pot and listening to Jefferson Airplane; his daughter is stealing money from his wallet. His brother Arthur (Richard Kind), out of work and crashing at Larry’s house, spends half his day draining his sebaceous cyst in the bathroom and the other half working on “the Mentaculus,” a notebook full of insane scribblings and formulae. And his shrewish wife (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for the unctuous Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed, using his announcer’s pipes to great effect).

As the indignities pile on poor Larry, Stuhlbarg — known to Broadway audiences for his performance in The Pillowman — grows more and more desperate, and more and more disheveled. (Stuhlbarg says the continuity department employed a “haggard chart” to track his misery over the course of the movie.) He consults three rabbis about his plight, each less useful than the last. And he struggles to understand what it is that Hashem is doing to him. Why is his suffering important to God? How can he stop it? Is there a single action he can take that will undo all that’s come before? “Actions have consequences,” he tells a student angry about failing his course. “Yes, sir, often,” the student replies.

Larry comes to believe that his problem might be inaction. “I haven’t done anything!” he wails more than once — to his angry wife, to his divorce lawyer, to the rabbis. Leave it to the Coens to employ, as a crucial metaphor for Larry’s plight, his son’s secret membership in the Columbia Record Club, which has led to a series of pleading collections calls. “Santana Abraxas?” Larry asks blankly. “I didn’t order a Santana Abraxas.”  “Yes, sir, just do nothing, and we’ll send you your next record,” the caller explains.

Everywhere Larry turns, he is confronted with his own inaction. His comely next-door neighbor sunbathes nude in her backyard, and invites Larry to “take advantage of the new freedoms,” but he can’t bring himself to act. (The neighbor is played by Amy Landecker; her pubic hair is played by a merkin she named “Cousin It.”)  Night after night in the fleabag hotel to which his wife’s consigned him, Larry dreams of taking action — sleeping with the neighbor, saving his screwed-up brother — always with disastrous results. If he finally does take action, what will happen to him? Not for nothing do we first see Larry, just after an X-ray at his doctor’s, explaining the story of Schrödinger’s cat to his students.

The Coens’ control of their material is, of course, flawless, and as ever this film begs the question of what purpose the material serves. Is A Serious Man a serious movie? Sort of; sort of it’s a joke, although a dark one with an Old Testament punchline. From its parabolic opening — a short Yiddish-language fable set in the shtetl of a man, his wife, and a dybbuk played by Fyvush Finkel — to its horror-movie shock-cuts to its whirlwind conclusion, A Serious Man is unsubtle, entertaining, full of portent, and signifying … something, that’s for sure.


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    Film critic for the Washington Post; contributing writer at New York. dankois.com.

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