Susan Granger’s review of “A Serious Man” (Focus Features)
This 14th feature film from Joel and Ethan Coen is bewildering. Perhaps it’s best described as a philosophical meditation about their insular Midwestern upbringing – with a historical prologue involving a Yiddish-speaking husband and wife in a Polish shtetl visited by someone (Fyvush Finkel) who may or may not be a Dybbuk (a dead person usually associated with evil).
Flash forward to 1967 in suburban Minneapolis, where the story revolves around a righteous, Jewish physics professor, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is up for tenure at the college where he teaches. His Jefferson Airplane-obsessed, stoner son (Aaron Wolff) is about to be Bar Mitzvah and his unstable, misanthropic brother (Richard Kind) has moved into his home, monopolizing the bathroom, which infuriates his teenage daughter (Jessica McManus) who is continually trying to wash her hair. And he fears the deer-hunting, anti-Semitic neighbors are encroaching over his property line.
Complications arise when an envelope stuffed with cash appears on his desk, seemingly a bribe from a Korean student who flunked an exam. Then anonymous letters denigrating his character are sent to the tenure committee. And his shrewish wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), announces she’s in love with Sy (Fred Malamed), a pompous widower/longtime friend, and asks for a “get,” a Jewish divorce, propelling him to seek refuge in the marijuana den of a seductive neighbor (Amy Landecker). Like a modern-day Job, Larry dutifully visits a trio of rabbis, only to realize, as a friend observes, “It’s not always easy, deciphering what God is trying to tell you.” And that’s bewildering to a man who deals with mathematical certainties.
While the serio-comedic characters are stylized caricatures, the Coens’ dialogue is sharp and glib, like when Larry admonishes his students, after delineating Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: “Even if you can’t figure it out, you’re still responsible for it on the midterm.” But their point about cosmic injustice remains elusive. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Serious Man” is a bleak, tedious 5, an ambivalent memoir about Biblical adversity, filled with edgy, alienating angst.