- The Washington Times - Friday, October 9, 2009

The poster for “A Serious Man” portrays its protagonist in an almost regal fashion: Perched on his roof, with hands firmly on hips, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) comes across as king of the patio people; looking down at his minions, Larry is sure of his place in the world.

Reality could not be further from this portrait, however. In truth, Larry is a put-upon mess. He passively sits by as his wife declares her intention to leave him for a family friend, gobsmacked as she asks that he move out and submit to a ritual divorce; his children lie to and steal from him; his students try to bribe him. In short, his life is adrift and without meaning, unbearably unfocused.

“A Serious Man” chronicles Larry’s search for meaning. Will he find it from the rabbis who staff his synagogue? Is there a hidden truth in the mathematical equations he teaches in his college classes or the fantastical theories his brother compiles? Is there even a meaning to be found?

The religious component of “A Serious Man” is its most interesting, a rare cinematic reflection by filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen upon the religion of their childhood. The portrait they paint is one of alienation. Larry is intimidated by the All-American with a crew cut who resides next door; even the neighbor’s game of catch with his similarly flattopped son takes on a menacing air.

Larry’s outsider status with his gentile neighbor strikes a stark contrast with Walter Sobchak, John Goodman’s famous convert in “The Big Lebowski.” Walter may have been socially maladjusted, but it had nothing to do with his religion; indeed, his appeals to 5,000 years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax and his refusal to roll on the Shabbos were treated as a laughable quirk.

Larry’s Judaism, meanwhile, is treated more seriously, as a rock to which he clings in hopes of finding a mooring in the world. It just so happens that the rock might dash him to pieces by giving false hope of salvation instead of providing a sanctuary.

Mr. Stuhlbarg’s performance as Larry is among the finest of the year: Ranging from bewildered to pained to just plain defeated, Mr. Stuhlbarg’s face always conveys just the right variance in mood to get across his confusion at his shabby treatment at the hands of the universe — as well as his confusion at his own passivity in the face of such injustice.

With its dream sequences and existentialist atmosphere, this is the Coens’ most complex picture since “The Big Lebowski” and perhaps the best film they’ve ever made. It’s funnier than some critics have allowed, producing both quiet chuckles and laugh-out-loud moments, and manages to deal with the larger themes of life in ways both subtle and straightforward.

It’s a movie that rewards repeat viewings: Go in with an open mind the first time and a more focused mind the second and reap the rewards.

★★★
TITLE: “A Serious Man”
RATING: R (language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence)
CREDITS: Written, produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes
WEB SITE: https://www.FilmInFocus.com/ASeriousMan
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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