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Vol. LXIII, No. 44
 
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
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Cinema

For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

Sari Lennick (left) stars as Judith Gopnik and Jessica McManus (right) stars as Judith’s daughter Sarah Gopnik in writer/directors Joel & Ethan Coen’s “A Serious Man,” a Focus Features release.

A Serious Man: Job-Like Patriarch Tested in Coen Brothers’ Modern Morality Play

Kam Williams

The Book of Job, thought by many theologians to be the oldest set of scriptures in the Bible, relates the story of a generous, prosperous and pious patriarch whose faith in God is tested by a series of calamities orchestrated by Satan. Over the course of his excruciating ordeal, Job remains righteous despite losing his children, his home and all his worldly possessions in a whirlwind, and then his health and even the love of his wife, who tells him to “Curse God, and die!”

Instead, he consults three friends for an explanation as to why the Almighty would allow a devoted follower to suffer so much misfortune, but they are of no help since they believe he must have sinned to incur God’s wrath. In the end, Job’s “Why me?” is left unanswered, although he is at least well rewarded for having kept his faith in the face of adversity.

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man is a modern morality play revolving around a latter-day Job burdened by a host of woes of Biblical proportions. After the pre-opening credits murder of an elderly rabbi (Fyvush Finkel) by a skeptical peasant couple (Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson) living in an Eastern European shtetl around the turn of the 20th Century, the setting shifts to Minnesota in 1967 where we are introduced to the protagonist, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a mild-mannered economics professor.

Larry resides in a modest, middle-class home on a nondescript, suburban tract typical of the era, a defoliated landscape dotted with rows of identical houses devoid of personality. The members of his dysfunctional family, however, bear little resemblance to their sterile environment, as each is a colorfully-comical character with a skeleton in his or her closets.

There’s Larry’s wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), who wants a divorce so she can remarry unctuous, recently-widowed Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Meanwhile, their spoiled teenage daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus), has been stealing money to pay for a nose job, and their son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), is hooked on marijuana at the age of 12. Finally, we have unemployed Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind), a slacker who keeps landing on the wrong side of the law.

Things aren’t any better for Larry at work where someone’s been anonymously sending letters to his department suggesting that he be denied tenure on the grounds of moral turpitude. Plus, a desperate Korean student (David Kang) who failed an exam has been trying to bribe him for a passing grade.

All of the above trials and tribulations leave Larry overwhelmed, both financially and emotionally. So, he requests an audience with sage Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell), only to be told he has to work his way up the spiritual ladder by meeting first with assistant Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg), and then with Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner). Neither, of course, is able to resolve the dilemma, thus leaving it up to Larry, like Job, to be buoyed by faith alone.

Its religious pretensions notwithstanding, A Serious Man isn’t as heavy in tone as it might sound since it isn’t designed to be taken very seriously. In fact, the film is first and foremost a sublime comedy given to poking fun at mid-western Jewish mores at the time the Coen Brothers themselves were raised in Minnesota. Perhaps because of their intimate familiarity with the subject-matter, this picture proves to be their most mature, coherent and satisfying offering yet.

A sumptuous cinematic feast, and kosher to boot!

Excellent (4 stars). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, nudity and brief violence. In English, Hebrew and Yiddish with subtitles. Running time: 105 minutes. Studio: Focus Features.

For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

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