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May 13, 2017

“A Serious Man” is a Serious Success


(Courtesy MCT)

The figure of the “nebbish” has had a long and proud history in film. Ranging from Woody Allen’s entire pre-Mia Farrow divorce output to Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of Harvey Pekar, the neurotic Jewish male has long held interest for filmmakers. The Coen Brothers began their interest in the nebbish back in 1991, with John Turturro’s titular character in their Oscar-nominated “Barton Fink.” With their latest effort, “A Serious Man,” they bring this figure full circle. The question is: Is the nebbish truly worthy of a film of his own? And if he is, will the film justify his nebbishness with a world that molds him?

“A Serious Man” examines the fall of Midwestern Jewish physics professor Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) as he deals with a divorce, financial doom, a pot-smoking son who is on the verge of his Bar Mitzvah and a disgruntled Korean student. As a consequence, he also is forced to face, like many others of the nebbish persuasion, a complete disconnect from his faith. And boy, do the Coen Brothers nail that aspect of the film. Judaism is portrayed as the “Saturday Morning Bar Mitzvah Show,” with the only ties to any kind of ancient tradition acted out by men who very well could have written the Torah.

While the Coens don’t necessarily turn a self-hating eye towards Modern Judaism, the critical perspective they take is bound to cause some kind of controversy in the community. In what is probably one of the more troubling sequences, a young rabbi spouts truisms about finding beauty in the mundane – which, while not necessarily a negative statement, doesn’t seem to carry much weight in the washed-out Midwest concrete slab that serves as the setting for much of this film. While self-deprecation has long been a staple of Jewish humor, some may be somewhat put off by this aspect of the film. The humor verges on cruelty at points. While the finger seems to be pointed more at the modern synagogue rather than Judaism itself, the film’s darkly humorous prologue set in a folkloric shtetl makes one wonder.

Mention must be made of the Coen Brothers’ decision to populate this film with mostly unknown actors. The only major recognizable actors are Richard Kind (Spin City) and Fred Melamed. Even then, these are not glamour roles. We see these actors undergo a complete loss of self, until we only know them as Sy Abelman and Uncle Arthur. As a result, the characters are allowed to stand on their own, preventing the audience from spending the movie recognizing familiar faces. A more profound connection to the film is able to be made. Not since “Barton Fink” have these fantastic directors stirred up such volatile emotions.

One fantastic element of the film which seems to have been overlooked by most critics is the superb performance by first-time actor Aaron Wolff, as Larry’s pothead son Danny Gopnick. Not since Seth Green acted out Woody Allen’s neuroses as a child in “Radio Days” has there been a performance of this kind. The dialogue delivered by him and his fellow classmates is pitch-perfect. Remember how beautiful the day was when you discovered cursing? Remember how horrible that day was for everyone else? Children curse in this film with all the joy of people discovering a whole new realm of language, one which is filled with wonder. The world of middle school has been captured, in all its tedious profane glory.

Meanwhile, Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as Larry Gopnick most certainly should be receiving at the very least an Oscar mention, if not an actual award. He portrays his nebbishness admirably, and, like everyone else, completely absorbs himself in the character. Larry is a man who is slowly but surely being worn down by his surroundings. Circumstance has driven him to fits of weeping and twitching, and is almost more painful than funny to watch. It is a very brave performance, and once again deserves to receive attention when the award season comes around.

“A Serious Man” was a very brave film for the Coen Brothers to make. After the one-two punch of “No Country for Old Men” and “Burn After Reading,” people were expecting this to be more of the same darkly humorous postmodern films, based on the trailer. What developed, instead, was something wholly different. “A Serious Man” is darker, weirder, wilder and an angrier animal than anyone could have ever expected. The question is: Is this an animal you want to let into your home?

Mark Schiffer can be reached at

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