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Serious change

Movies | Coen film allows characters to rail against their dark, dour world

Issue: "Save the unions," Oct. 24, 2009

Even though you can't figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the mid-term" cautions physics professor Larry Gopnik (an amazing Michael Stuhlbarg) in the Coen brothers' new movie A Serious Man. And that's Larry's problem, too.

His wife Judith is having an affair with their friend Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed), and she wants a Gett (a ritual divorce) so that she can be with, yes, a more serious man. His tenure may be jeopardized by anonymous letters sent to the committee, trashing him. His daughter is saving the money she steals from his wallet to get a nose job. His tempting neighbor (Amy Landecker) sunbathes nude, where he can see her, like David, from the roof of his house. What's a devout Jewish man to do?

The R-rated comedy may be the most sincere movie the Coens, ever aloof and controlled, have made in their 14-film career. There's never a stray shot or a line of dialogue out of place in A Serious Man, but there are moments when the directors allow their characters to be filled with emotion in a way that they clearly don't find amusing or contemptible. That emotion is always despair; frustration with Hashem ("the Name," a Hebrew word for God), who always seems to be just around the corner, like every other answer in the film.

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"Hashem hasn't given me bupkes!" sobs Larry's unemployable brother Arthur. "You've got a job! You've got a family!" Arthur, a compulsive gambler who crashes indefinitely on Larry's couch, could easily be the most pathetic, repulsive character in the film, but for some reason he seems to be the person the Coens most respect.

In their movies, the world is either a fantasy or a dirty trick, but they've never allowed their characters to rail against it before. The directors have at last let somebody express frustration that this is not the way the world should be. The movie is still a dour, black comedy, but it feels like a herald of great things to come.


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