By Kyle | September 17, 2009
The new Joel & Ethan Coen film, “A Serious Man,” is a sort of wry feature-length Jewish parable, if a fractured one, about morality and 60s mores — the increasing acceptability of infidelity, divorce, the Jefferson Airplane, pot smoking and even homosexuality.
I didn’t know what to make of the prologue, in which a Yiddish-speaking couple living in a cabin in Europe in maybe the 19th century welcomes a strange old man who, the wife claims, is a dybbuk or demon. From there we cut to late-60s upper middle class Minneapolis, where the Coens grew up. Perhaps we’re meant to see that in this giant leap there is a connection between ancient Jewish morals-centric storytelling and the modern variety.
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), an overworked professor, finds himself dealing with a rapid succession of crises — some are major and some aren’t yet the Coens handle them all with roughly the same level of mock importance. A series of dunning calls from the Columbia House Record Club become a running gag, as does Larry’s adolescent son’s efforts to evade a beating by the bullying pot dealer to whom he owes $20, as does Larry’s daughter’s constant need to shampoo her hair, as does his brother (Richard Kind)’s incessant weirdness and disgusting use of a suction mechanism to drain a cyst. (Kind, by the way, is the biggest name in the cast of unknowns.) As for major problems, Larry’s wife announces that she is preparing to marry a guy who refers to himself as a “serious man,” an insufferable creature called Sy.
It takes quite a while to get to the point, which emerges as Larry visits various rabbis but is denied access to the only one in town who he thinks might have some wisdom to offer.
Larry must decide whether to do the right thing about a Korean student who flunked his class but might have the power to keep him from getting tenure and whose father threatens a lawsuit. The student slips Larry an envelope full of cash. Accepting it would solve Larry’s increasing money problems and make the weirdly threatening Korean kid go away.
On the outskirts of this are the usual dryly weird moments you’d expect from a Coen Brothers movie. Larry’s goy neighbor, a hard-looking hunter, seems to harbor an unspoken hatred for him. In a comic episode that resembles a Woody Allen short story or a chapter of “Deconstructing Harry,” the Coens go off on a tangent about a Jewish dentist who becomes obsessed when he finds Hebrew letters that form a distinct message are carved into the back sides of the teeth of one of his patients — a goy.
Though the movie resembles a midwestern “The Squid and the Whale,” wrapping all of this into an easily understood package is not what the Coens are interested in. Yet the ending suggests that decisions about morality have consequences as severe as a thunderbolt from God. I like the Coens best when they’re delivering either full-on demented comedy (“Raising Arizona,” “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “The Big Lebowski”) or when, as in “No Country for Old Men,” they work hard to establish the humanity of their characters.
There are hints that Larry is someone the Coens actually care about as something other than a comic creation, but I’d still place “A Serious Man” closer to movies I liked much less — “Fargo,” “Barton Fink” and “Burn After Reading,” all of which maintain a wary ironic distance that at times can seem detached, even cruel. In this case the central figure is so passive, round-shouldered and inert — a Woody Allen figure minus the wisecracks — that you’re unlikely to react to his plight with much more than a shrug.