A modern-day Job and his woes

Posted: October 16, 2009

A Serious Man, the Book of Job according to the Coen Brothers, is set to the music of Jefferson Airplane. This unsettling, shaggy, surrealistic pillow of a movie - a mixed bag more funny-strange than ha-ha - goes something like this:

There was a man in the land of Minneapolis, circa 1967, whose name was Larry Gopnik. That man was blameless and upright, one that feared God and eschewed evil. There were born unto him one son, about to become a bar mitzvah, and one daughter, secretly taking money from Larry's wallet to procure a nose job.

His substance was an associate professorship in physics at the university, where he had 7,000 calculations and 500 proofs and was up for tenure, and a tidy suburban split-level with a television antenna unreliably receiving signals of F Troop and from God.

It was not Larry's students who were tested; it was Larry, the man of science who cannot explain the mystical tragedies that befell him. He was blackmailed by a student, betrayed by his wife, deceived by his children, and the victim of slander. Yet, when all the givens of his life were taken from him, did he curse God? He did not. Still, in the words of the prophet Grace Slick, when the truth is found to be lies, all the joy within him dies. Such is the mordant tone of this unknowable film about unknowability.

Squirrely and enigmatic, Joel and Ethan Coen have long been drawn to what agnostics would call ghost stories and what believers would call biblical parables. In the stylized, sinister universes of Barton Fink, No Country for Old Men, and A Serious Man, a satanic figure tests the central character. Note that I did not say tests the faith, for the Coens' characters are secular men.

As Larry, the gifted stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg gives a deer-in-headlights performance as the perpetually perplexed man of science unsuccessfully reconciling rational with supernatural.

"It's not easy," notes a helpful friend of his, "deciphering what God is trying to tell you." Nor is it easy deciphering what the Coens are trying to tell us.

One clue is in the film's prologue, set in an Eastern European shtetl a century before Larry's time. On a snowy evening, a rabbi knocks on the door of a righteous couple. The husband welcomes the scholar, but the wife recoils, recognizing him for a dybbuk, or ghost, inhabiting the body of the deceased rabbi. Is this a satanic trickster who will generations later come to test Larry?

In part, the hyperrealistic film (shot by longtime Coens collaborator Roger Deakins) illustrates the varieties of deception. Devils in rabbinical robes, wolves in sheep's clothing, enemies in the guise of friends, like the ironically named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed, unctuously funny), the chum who would relieve Larry of his wife (Sari Lennick). Surrounded by such folk (including his nebbishy brother, played by Richard Kind), how can Larry tell vice from virtue? Who can love life that's nasty, brutish, and all too short?

For both protagonist and audience, A Serious Man is a mystery. Embrace the mystery, the Coens tell us. At the same time, they can't resist pulling the rug out from under our feet.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.

Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl.

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