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Laramie Movie Scope:
A Serious Man

A dramatic comedy of mysteries

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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December 22, 2009 -- “A Serious Man” is a funny and strange dark comedy about a man whose life is falling apart. In some respects it is reminiscent of some stories about existential absurdities, such as Franz Kafka's “The Trial.” The film's main character, Larry Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg of “Body of Lies”) is confronted by a series of mysteries and he begins to realize that the very foundation of his life is built on falsehoods and misunderstandings. His family, his career and his very life are in jeopardy. Nothing is clear. Nothing is safe. He can't get straight answers from anyone, including his wife, his son, his lawyer and two rabbis. The story is set in the 1960s. Jewish culture and religion are very much on display in this film, with many scenes taking place in a synagogue and a Jewish school. Yiddish words are used liberally in the dialog.

Larry's first big shakeup occurs when his wife, Judith (played by Sari Lennick) informs him that she is seeing another man named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and wants a divorce. Larry, who is a pushover, somehow believes his wife has not had sex with Sy. He is persuaded to move out of his own house and live in a nearby motel room with Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind of “For Your Consideration”). Larry is strapped for cash when his wife takes money from his bank account and he is forced to hire attorneys for the pending divorce and for Uncle Arthur's run-ins with the law.

Then there is the whole thing with the Park family. Larry, who is a college physics teacher, has a Korean student, Clive Park (David Kang) who has failed a mid-term exam. Clive pleads for a passing grade and surreptitiously leaves an envelope stuffed with cash on Larry's desk as a bribe. When Larry confronts Clive about the money, Clive denies he left the money. Later, Clive's father approaches Larry at home, bumping his fists together, he says, “Culture clash. Culture clash.”

Larry says, “With all respect, Mr. Park, I don't think it's that.”
Mr. Park replies, “Yes.”
Larry says, “No. It would be a culture clash if it were the custom in your land to bribe people for grades.”
Mr. Park replies, “Yes.”
Larry asks, “So you're saying it is the custom?”
Mr. Park replies, “No. This is defamation. Ground for lawsuit.”
Larry asks, “Let me get this straight. You're threatening to sue me for defaming your son?”
Mr. Park replies, “Yes.”
Larry says, “If it were defamation, there would have to be someone I was defaming him to ... All right, let's keep it simple. I could pretend the money never appeared. That's not defaming anyone.”
Mr. Park replies, “Yes, and passing grade.”
Larry asks, “Passing grade?”
Mr. Park replies, “Yes.”
Larry asks, “Or you'll sue me?”
Mr. Park replies, “Yes, for taking money.”
Larry asks, “So he did leave the money?”
Mr. Park replies, “This is defamation!”
Larry says, “It doesn't make sense! Either he left the money or he didn't.”
Mr. Park replies, “Please, accept the mystery.”

This is just one of the mysteries in the film. There is also the story of the Hebrew writing on the Goy's teeth, but I won't even try to explain that one. I'll just note here that it is a funny, nonsensical story. There is also the mystery of the dead man, a Dybbuk (a sort of Jewish zombie), who appears in an entirely separate part of the movie which takes place in a foreign country, perhaps Eastern Europe or Russia in the past, perhaps in the 19th century. This ghost story is a prologue that opens the movie, which then skips onward to 20th century America for the rest of the film. This opening Yiddish fable (entirely fabricated by writer-directors Ethan and Joel Coen of “No Country for Old Men”) doesn't really have anything to do with the rest of the film, except that it is another mystery, like the paradox of Schrödinger's cat, described in one of Larry's lectures about quantum entanglement.

A dead man also appears to Larry in the film several times and engages him in conversation. The film raises the bizarre possibility that Larry and the dead man are caught up in some kind of existential entanglement. Like most Coen brothers films, there are deaths, but thankfully, they are not as bloody and graphic as they have been in their previous films. One man is killed in a car accident (off screen). Another has what appears to be a fatal heart attack.

At the end of the film there are signs of even more ominous and threatening events headed towards Larry and his family. What happens later is a mystery. Larry is a mathematician. He tries to confront his situation with logic and morality, but he is ill-suited to deal with the mysteries he confronts. This film is a little like the “Twilight Zone” TV show that was popular in the 1960s. Much of what happens is in a kind of off-kilter universe where things don't quite make sense, or they happen in dreams or in the imagination. Some of it seems real, some of it isn't real, but it is all mysterious. If there is a moral to this story, it is that trying to make sense of life is a foolish endeavor doomed to failure.

I couldn't really get into this movie because all the characters are basically schmucks (to use a Yiddish term). If there were any menschs in this film, they weren't prominent. It could have used a few menschs. Larry Gopnik is a decent fellow, but he is a pushover, not a stand up guy. Since he is a wimp, it devalues the movie's message about his lack of free will. It is easy for adverse circumstances to whack a wimp. This film rates a B.

Post mortem note: The overall tone of this film is determinism, or at least a lack of free will. This is a very common theme in Hollywood movies (and I am not saying this is a Hollywood movie, independent, whatever, just that it has a typical message). I've never understood why movies as dark as this one get made by people who among the luckiest, most privileged, respected, wealthiest and renowned people in society. Larry Gopnik's story is entirely fictional and it is the exact opposite of the true story of the Coen Brothers. If they were to make a story based on their own careers, it should be as blindingly bright as Larry's story is dark. Despite drab fables like this and “No Country for Old Men” they are the toast of Hollywood and the darlings of many critics. Never mind the fact that at every opportunity they show their lack of regard for those who honor and worship them. Now that's a real mystery.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2009 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)