A Serious Man, a funny movie

By Amy Shaunette

Ah, the Bible. It is the best-selling book of all time. It is the basis for several religions, the foundation of life for millions of people. And apparently, it is great inspiration for funny movies. “A Serious Man,” the latest dramedy from Minnesota’s own Coen Brothers, functions as a modern version of the biblical story of Job, a man whose life is crashing down around him, with no explanation or help from God. The Coens have replaced Job with sexy physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), swapped the land of Canaan for suburban Minnesota and fast-forwarded from the BCE years to 1967.

Faced with a student bribing him for a passing grade and a suspenseful wait for the decision of the university’s tenure committee, Larry Gopnik has enough to worry about. So when his wife announces she is leaving him for Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed), a cheesy, hug happy family friend, Larry nears the breaking point. Add his live-in brother’s illegal gambling problem, financial worries and a legal battle with the neighbors over property lines, and Larry’s losing hope. He turns to his Jewish faith for answers, visiting rabbi after rabbi in an effort to make sense of it all, to answer once and for all the question, “Why is God doing this to me?”

Stuhlbarg portrays Larry with stunning sincerity, winning the sympathy of the audience. Life really sucks for Larry, and he poignantly convinces us that’s it’s really not fair. A family man, Larry’s children and wife emerge as vividly flawed characters. His son Danny (Aaron Wolff) should be preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, but skips out on Torah study to smoke pot and listen to Jefferson Airplane. Teenage Sarah (Jessica McManus) is, to Larry’s horror, saving up for a nose job, and spends most of her time washing her hair. And then there’s Larry’s wife Judith (Sari Wagner Lennick), filing for divorce and emptying the family’s savings account. The film also features crowds of Jewish school children and Hebrew schoolteachers and generations of rabbis, a rich array of amusing characters. Sharp screenwriting and intensely quirky characters lend “A Serious Man” a heavy dose of smart humor. It’s almost hard to feel sorry for Larry when everything is so damn funny.

The film’s careful production is perhaps its best asset. The Coens searched Minnesota for the perfect neighborhood of authentic rambler homes, settling on a small section of Bloomington. Filming also took place at St. Olaf’s College and Normandale Community College. The sets and props are impeccable-authentic 1960s floral patterned curtains and couches, candy colored dishes, vintage fashions, old cars-the Coens have created a kitschy, picturesque midcentury aesthetic. Perhaps the best part was the wardrobe of dead stock vintage eyeglasses, a stylish pair of horn-rimmed glasses on nearly every male character. The film’s population of sexy bespectacled nerds was almost a distraction from the main story. I now not only want to be a Jew, but I want to date one or two or seven as well.

Ultimately, Larry’s questions remain unanswered. No one can offer him reassurance that God has not abandoned him; Larry receives no promise that things will work out. Kicked out of the house, Larry is living in a hotel and receiving bills daily, left with no other option but to question his own morality. Is he as good a person as he thought he was? “A Serious Man” calls to mind the adage, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” When the lemonade just won’t come, what happens? The answer-a new Coen brothers movie. And this time, it’s a really, really good one.