MOVIE REVIEW- <i>Serious</i>ly funny: Coen brothers do it again


G-d forbid I should tell you how to spend your money, but A Serious Man? You could do worse.

The Coen Brothers return to their cultural and geographical roots with one of the year's strangest comedies. It's set in Minneapolis in 1967, the year big brother Joel Coen turned 13. Does that mean it's autobiographical? Who cares? It's the most Jewish movie since Fiddler on the Roof, but most of the singing is done by Jefferson Airplane.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is on top of the world. His doctor just gave him a clean bill of health, he's soon to become tenured as a physics professor, and his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is about to be bar mitzvahed. Things at home might be better if Larry's brother Arthur (Richard Kind) wasn't staying with them and driving everyone crazy, but overall life is good.

It's funny how things can change, almost like in a movie. Suddenly, Larry's wife Judith (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce so she can marry widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). The tenure is threatened by someone sending anonymous letters to the committee. Larry suspects the Korean student (David Kang) who may have tried to bribe him for a passing grade. Mr. Brandt (Peter Breitmayer), the gentile next door, is encroaching on his property line. Danny owes money to the local pot dealer and is always fighting with his sister Sarah (Jessica McManus); Arthur's in trouble with the police and maybe the mob for gambling; and Channel 4 won't come in, so Danny can't watch F Troop.

Then Judith banishes Larry to the Jolly Roger motel, there are auto accidents, legal expenses, more charges against Arthur, threats from the Koreans and the Columbia Record Club... Oy! Job didn't know how easy he had it.

Of course there are still some good things. Climbing on the roof to fix the TV antenna, Larry sees Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker) next door sunbathing in the nude, offering him a view of her promised land.

You don't have to be Jewish to appreciate A Serious Man. Assuming you have a passing familiarity with the importance of a bar mitzvah to a boy approaching manhood, most of the relevant Yiddish terms are explained, and the others just add seasoning. (You can find a glossary on the film's website if you're curious.)

Just as you don't have to know Yiddish, you don't have to know the actors, who were obviously chosen for their great character faces. Eugene Levy could have played Larry, Gina Gershon would have been a great Mrs. Samsky; but they wouldn't have been better than the actors the Coens have chosen, and they would have been more expensive. (I'm just saying...)

The most Jewish scenes in A Serious Man (other than all of them) are a prologue set in the Old Country and a story, "The Goy's Teeth," a rabbi tells Larry. They help explain why Larry teaches, if only in his dreams, "The Uncertainty Principle: We can't ever really know what's going on."

A Serious Man can hardly be seen as a celebration of Judaism, although there may be some affection buried deep in its satire. With its slight exaggeration– and remember, it takes place 42 years ago– it emphasizes the sense of otherness some Jews feel (if they don't actually cultivate), despite the possibilities for assimilation.

Even if you've never kibitzed in a kibbutz, if you're a fan of great filmmaking, you'll agree Joel and Ethan Coen have earned another mazel tov with A Serious Man.