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A Serious Man

In a short prologue set in mediaeval Eastern Europe, a Hasidic man invites an elderly neighbour to his home for soup but his wife determines that the elder is a possessed corpse (a "dybbuk") and, to the horror of her husband, promptly stabs him in the chest to prove the point, thus cursing the family line for generations to come. Flash forward to 1967 Minnesota, the Summer of Love, and it seems that women are still betraying their husbands as Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) is informed by his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), that she is having an affair with family friend, marriage councilor and the recently widowed, Sy (Fred Melamed). This revelation sets in motion a cautionary tale of temptation and divine retribution as Larry attempts to negotiate a minefield of moral solicitations.


After the star power indulgences of Burn After Reading, Joel and Ethan Coen pull an unheralded A Serious Man out of nowhere with a largely unknown cast and the result is one of their best yet. The smart, intricately woven script masquerades as a superficial, piss-take Jewish comedy employing some fabulously dry dialogue. But there are many layers operating beneath the surface with the marriage of Old Testament theology and new age quantum theory - surely an unholy union if ever there was one but the Coen's convince us that were Moses and Neils Bohr to meet in a bar then they'd be slapping each other on the back and howling drunken sea shantys by closing time.

As is the norm for the Coens, the film is filled to the brim with affectionately idiosyncratic (albeit) grotesque characters that are performed to perfection by the cast no matter how small their role. The willingness of the otherwise attractive Sari Lennick to be made up to look like John Travolta in drag is a thoroughly commendable trait and she portrays the stoic, hard line Judith with an unsettling mixture of ferocity and allure. Stuhlbarg is a revelation as Larry, a good man forsaken by his friends, family and God, struggling to maintain a smiling face against insurmountable adversity, interpreting the divine hand of Hashem utilising the only rational tool at his disposal - mathematics. His slow descent from confident, authoritative, rational scientist to blubbering, emotional, God-fearing wreck is utterly convincing.

Larry lectures in quantum mechanics, a discipline of physics encapsulated by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle - "you can never really be sure what's going on" - and much of the audience will possess a sound understanding of this principle when the film collides abruptly with its finale. But naturally, this wouldn't be a true Coen film if all the pieces fell together too easily! It also wouldn't be a Coen film without the obligatory moment of spontaneous blinding violence!

So what is the meaning of this film? Hmmm, don't fuck with a vengeful Old Testament God who acts in ways akin to the uncertainties of Bohr theory? Maybe. As with the best films of this ilk, the thematic entanglements are open to interpretation but one thing is certain, A Serious Man is seriously good!
Stuart Jamieson
www.filminfocus.com

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