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Movie Review: A Serious Man

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A great paradox of the Coen Brothers' films is that they are all exactly the same even as they are all miraculously different. If you're a fan of theirs, I think that would make perfect sense to you. However, even if you've never seen a single one of their films, I'd wager that if I placed ten random films in front of you and two of them were made by the Coens, you'd correctly pick them out. There's just a certain quality to their work -- a meticulous, inventive attention to detail -- that is immediately obvious. Their latest film, A Serious Man is no exception. Simply put, it's strange and ordinary, funny and tragic. More simply, it's brilliant.

If there is a master gloss that can reveal the nature of all of the Coen Brothers' films it may be this: there is an infinite amount of uncertainty in the universe and that uncertainty visits humanity with a profound sense of ambivalence. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is, by all accounts, a decent and serious man. He maintains a good job; he cares for his family; he is a humble and observant Jew. As soon as the movie opens, though, his world suddenly and unexpectedly collapses. His wife decides to leave him; his expected tenure is thrown into chaos, and he can't find a rabbi who will help him. He's basically Job, circa 1967 in Minnesota.

While the parallels to the Coens' own upbringing are obvious, one should never assume that they are being sincere given their coltish, contrarian tendencies. A plot thread that would seem to form the backbone of the film (the implosion of Larry's marriage) becomes a minor key as the film progresses while Larry's unstable brother (a fantastic Richard Kind) assumes a critical narrative role almost out of the blue. Meantime, there's nude neighbors, anti-Semitic neighbors, bribe-happy students, stoned children, useless rabbis, cysts, dybuks -- in short, the usual carefully manicured oddities that always inhabit a Coen Brothers film.

What's most noteworthy about A Serious Man is how the Coens cast the film: it's virtually all relative unknowns who haven't previously been part of the Coens' repertory. The aforementioned Shuhlbarg and Kind are, of course, brililant but special mention should be made to Fred Melamed who dazzles as the sonorous man who steals Gopkin's wife. Amy Landecker also burns up the screen as Gopkin's sultry neighbor who fulfills his every nebbish fantasy by sunbathing in the nude, smoking pot and sitting too close to him on the couch. Also -- slight spoiler -- Gopkin's son's Bar Mitzvah may be the most hilariously inspired to ever appear on film.

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In most films, the infliction of so much suffering would ultimately be remedied with a common and happy ending. What the Coens do, though -- in fact, what they always do -- is give you an ending that's actually satisfying. Plenty of people complained about the perfectly open-ended conclusion of No Country for Old Men. That's not what A Serious Man aims for -- there' s closure -- but the spirit is in the same vein. I'll go even further by saying that the final shot of the film is so confident, so forbidding that you can't help but smile at the sheer brio of the Brothers. This is filmmaking at its best, folks. See this film.

A Serious Man opens today