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Review: “A Serious Man” (2009)

If there’s one thing the Coens love, it’s burying themes in one line of dialogue. In “No Country for Old Men,” it’s “You can’t stop what’s comin'”; in “Blood Simple,” “Down here, you’re on your own.” The backbone of “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is “The more you look the less you know.” Their latest effort, the puzzling, bleakly comic “A Serious Man,” contains the real doozy. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor, has gotten a few mean swirlies in life’s toilet. After filling a board full of indecipherable equations to explain the Uncertainty Principle, he switches to words. “It means that we can’t ever really know what’s going on,” he tells his blank-eyed students. KERBLAM goes the dynamite.

On the other hand, distilling a movie as complex and opaque as “A Serious Man” into one sentence seems a tad foolish. But there are many elements in this film, a snapshot of 1967 in the suburbs of Minneapolis, that don’t appear to make the least bit of sense: most of the characters; what they say; what they do; what they don’t do; that dimly-lit, oddball, total head-scratcher of a prologue involving an early 20th-century Jewish couple (Allen Lewis Rickman, Yelena Shmulenson) and a guest (Fyvush Finkel) the wife believes to be a dybbuk, or evil spirit, in the body of a dead neighbor. At the hub of all the confusion is Larry, a man who infuriates us by doing nothing — nothing to deserve the way people mistreat him, nothing to deserve his bad fortune and, even worse, nothing to fight it. Larry Gopnik is a man who takes things lying down. His default setting is anguished befuddlement.

Can we like a man like this?  Eh. Heroes and bad men we root for because they have courage or gumption, but the ones who live their lives as an apology? That’s a tougher sell. Still, Stuhlbarg lends Larry a kind of barely contained, Jonah-in-the-whale desperation that is understandable if not endearing. A tidal wave of despair might freeze any man. Actually, it isn’t so much a tidal wave as a flood that’s got Larry down. It starts with his wife Judith’s (Sari Lennick) announcement that she’s leaving him for his best friend Sy (Fred Melamed) and wants a gett, or Jewish divorce. His children — the whiny Sarah (Jessica McManus) and Danny (Aaron Wolff), preparing for his bar mitzvah by smoking lots of pot — don’t help matters. Neither does his loser brother Arthur (Richard Kind), a gambler with a perpetually draining sebaceous cyst who won’t get his own place. Larry’s shot at tenure may have been ruined by his lack of published work and anonymous hate mail, and then there are his feelings about a neighbor’s wife who sunbathes nude. Every breath Larry takes just fills up his lungs with more water. The film’s last scene is the gulp that might end him. It’s a lyrical yet pithy combination of Roger Deakins’ cinematography and the Coens’ faultless ear for pop music (hello, “Somebody to Love”).

Stuhlbarg, a relative unknown, is the reason why Larry curries our favor. His endless quest for an answer is often funny, but in ways that makes our guts churn. This is dark new territory for Joel and Ethan Coen — and these are the men who dream up lines like “he was alive when I buried him.” In fact, this might be their darkest film yet, maybe darker than “No Country for Old Men.” They show no mercy to Larry and make him about as pitiful as a man can get without being duct-taped naked to a flag pole. Why? Probably there isn’t an answer to this, though I’ve heard “A Serious Man” called a modern retelling of the Book of Job. Perhaps the directors simply intend to show that bad things happen to average people. When they do, we demand answers; there must be a reason and we figure we deserve to know what it is. Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner) doesn’t think so. “We all want the answer! But Hashem* doesn’t owe us the answer. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything.” If you buy that, you’ll buy “A Serious Man.” It’s not the Coens’ best, but you can’t say it isn’t their deepest.

Grade: B+

*Hebrew for “The Name”; a term for God many Jewish people use in conversation.