Movie review: A Serious Man

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

A lot of viewers were looking for answers at the conclusion of the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men, and for meaning by the end of their follow-up, Burn After Reading. The Coens' latest, A Serious Man, is a distinctive and often hilarious illustration of the head-ramming frustration these sorts of pursuits can inspire, on creative and cosmic levels.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor circa 1967, living with his family in a heavily Jewish Minneapolis suburb (reportedly much like the one where the Coens grew up). A variety of incidents, including Larry's wife (Sari Lennick) announcing she's leaving him for a family acquaintance (Fred Melamed), quickly throw his life out of whack.

Larry seeks knowledge from a progression of rabbis, but they can only offer parking lot metaphors and stories about Hebrew messages found on the inside of a gentile's mouth. Words of wisdom come instead from the recurring opening line to Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love."

In one scene, Gopnik covers a huge blackboard with equations to show the Uncertainty Principle, the concept "that nobody really knows what the hell's going on." Basically, A Serious Man does the same thing in 105 minutes of screen time.

The film's tone is fatalistic (it's got some of that Barton Fink feeling) and it keeps its distance from standard crowd-pleasing moves like star casting and tidy conclusions. Yet the Coens' visual precision and absurd humor are constantly rewarding, and from a certain perspective, what they come up with is more deeply reassuring than any made-up happy ending.

"A Serious Man"

Opens Friday

Grade: A