Movie Review: A Serious Man

This movie is a crack-up, a Jewish crack-up. I didn’t know what to do with it, so I had to check Ebert, who gave it four stars and Rotten Tomatoes, where it got 88 percent.

I got suspicious and confused right at the start. I launched the DVD, I clicked on “Play Movie” with the A Serious Man cover art in the background. Then the first five minutes transported me into eastern Europe, sometime in the late 19th century, for all I could tell, into a blizzard. A young Jewish man is guiding his work horse home. He enters the kitchen, the hearth, and there is his wife (or mother?) and they have a conversation in Yiddish, with bright English subtitles, about events that simply don’t relate to what I expected A Serious Man to be about.

I frown, I wonder if I put in the right disk, but yes, I remember hitting the play button with the right images. Is this a Jewish movie? It’s all dark, weird, and not at all fitting. What is going on? It’s going on for minutes, that’s what.

Then finally the credits start for the “real” movie, and for the next couple of hours I wonder what the beginning had to do with the movie.

Nothing, I figure out.

If you are my age, or close to it, you may have been to the movies before they showed previews, trailers and advertisements, but rather a short film, often some animated cartoon, or other art piece, before the movie starts.

That is what I conclude the Yiddish piece is: a short art film for a start, kind of like an appetizer to get me in the mood – albeit a weird mood.

The picture above, on the left, shows the main character, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) on the left. The guy on the right is Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), one of his best friends, comforting him. But I’ll get to that part later.

Larry is a Jewish physics professor, living in an unnamed midwestern suburb, with cracker-box houses on new streets on the prairie, where the trees are not yet mature giving the neighborhood an unfinished look. The town appears to be mostly Jewish. If this were a country-western song, Larry’s girlfriend would have left him, his dog would have died and his pickup truck would have been stolen.

But he is a physics professor living in the suburbs. His son listens to rock and roll during Hebrew class and is stoned during his bar mitzvah. His daughter steals money for a nose job. One of his students tries to bribe him for a passing grade. He is up on the roof of his house only to see his neighbor’s wife sunbathing naked behind the fence, getting flustered. His loser brother-in-law lives in their house, sleeps on the couch and feels sorry for himself between getting  into trouble with the law and staying up crying at night. And his wife tells him she wants a divorce so she can live with Sy Abelman, one of his best friends.

This is where we get back to the picture above. Sy just sees Larry for the first time since Larry’s wife told him about Sy. Ever the huggy-feely kind, Sy knows how hard this must be for Larry, so he brings a bottle of good wine to “talk.” He gives Larry a hug of comfort to make him feel better, since it must be very painful.

Sy betrays and comforts Larry at the same time. One of his students bribes and blackmails him at the same time. This wife kicks him out and he has to live at the “Jolly Roger”, a fleabag motel in town. To get help, Larry tries one Rabbi after the other. They youngest one is a ditz. The older one is a crackpot. And the wise old one can’t be bothered with mere mortals like Larry. Rabbis and lawyers are no help. Nobody is any help, not even the naked neighbor.

Images after images fly by. I chuckle, I laugh, I wince, I shake my head, glad that I am not Jewish and trapped in the apparently flawed religious and cultural logic that life cages people in. But it’s not the Jewish part that’s the problem. You could just as easily make it a movie about Catholic cages, or Mormon cages.

And then, as jarring as the start of the movie was, the end comes around and I wonder what happened.

What just happened?

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