Have you thought about getting a lawyer?

A Serious Man

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            Movies by Joel and Ethan Coen have a way of leaving me quiet in my seat, feeling like a dunce. Does anything make you feel more of an outsider than being part of an audience of laughing people while the humor flies right past your uncomprehending brain? Until, that is, “A Serious Man.”

            Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) has tried to do the right thing at every turn in his life and suddenly, life turns on him. Piece by piece his carefully considered life falls apart. The Coens have created a comical, lovable, indelible victim of circumstance. The humor lies in Larry’s inability to stop the onslaught. His undoing proceeds apace with our empathy for a good man knocked flat.
            Larry teaches math from a room-size blackboard full of the equations he expects will provide some certainty in his life. When Clive, an Asian son of a demanding father, comes to him with an envelope full of cash as a bribe for changing an F to a passing grade, Larry’s moral purity makes the choice easy. But when day is done, Larry walks up the path of his ranch house into family chaos that is boiling toward catastrophe.

            His son Danny (Aaron Wolff): “Dad, the antennae’s broken.” His daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus): “Why does Uncle Arthur take so long in the bathroom? His wife Judith (Sari Lennick): “Because he has to drain his sebaceous cyst.” Bathroom traffic and broken appliances are hardly world class problems, but a few minutes later Julia asks, “Have you thought about getting a lawyer?” She is in love with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). After a few short scenes we understand that Larry is surrounded by two selfish kids, a narcissistic wife and a brother with whom he now must share the living room couch. Is Larry paying the price for a mistake his ancestors made by letting a stranger into the house several generations back?

            After moving to The Jolly Roger Motel, Larry visits a number of rabbis who advise him in worthless platitudes. Judith wants a “ritual divorce” that will allow her to marry within the faith, “F Troop” is still fuzzy from the broken antennae, Arthur appears in a baby blue golf outfit (head to toe, baby blue). The Coens unfurl disasters in stark overstatements that are laced with contradiction, and their actors respond by becoming perfectly crafted horrible people who would ruin anyone’s evening meal. Fred Melamed’s Sy Ableman is a study in condescension that seems to have sprung from the Coens’ unbalanced minds.

            Michael Stuhlbarg’s Larry is a hapless fellow overwhelmed by ordinary life crises writ large. “I tried to do everything right.” Yes, he did, and we wonder if Larry will ever catch a break as the life cycle completes itself around his very ordinary self. We laugh as life’s ironies consume him and groan at the absurdity of the mediocrity that surrounds him. And we’re with him all the way.



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