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When I covered the 2008 Toronto film festival, my first screening was a Friday 9 AM showing of Joel and Ethan Coen's Burn After Reading. This year my first screening was a Friday 9 AM showing of Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man. It took place in the same theater, and I think I may actually have been sitting in the same seat. And they call me unadventurous!
A Serious Man inhabits that happy middle ground where the Coen brothers' most endearing movies reside: it's neither a flat-out misanthropic farce (Burn After Reading, The Ladykillers) nor a genre rehash (The Man Who Wasn't There, Blood Simple), but a comic parable that treats its characters with some measure of understanding and charts its own path without looking over its shoulder to earlier movies. Like Fargo and The Big Lebowski, it has all the earmarks of a personal statement, one of those movies that their biographer will use to connect the dots after they're gone.
Larry Gopnik, played by noted stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg, is a put-upon physics professor teaching at a small-town college in the Coens' native Minnesota. The Summer of Love is just beginning, and although psychedelia hasn't filtered out to the hinterlands yet, the movie's funniest motif is its intermingling of Judaic lore and the Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow LP. This reaches a hilarious climax when Larry's rebellious teenage son, approaching his bar mitzvah, is ushered into the dark, cavernous office of the temple's most revered rabbi. Sitting before the wizened old man, the boy waits in silence for him to dispense his words of wisdom. Finally the pearls drop from his lips: "When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies..."
The story often reminded me of The Man Who Wasn't There—like the Billy Bob Thornton character in that movie, Larry Gopnik is a man beset by problems that push him toward an existential dilemma. His wife wants to leave him for a beefy, moistly empathetic neighbor (Fred Melamed), his dysfunctional brother (Richard Kind) has moved into the house, and an stubbornly ambitious South Korean student in search of a passing grade complicates the professor's upcoming tenure vote by slipping him an envelope stuffed with cash. But in contrast to the earlier movie's tired noir moves, A Serious Man is earnestly engaged in the question of what it takes to be a good man, a serious man. Though I'm guessing its snarky directors would be the last to admit this.