Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
I must admit that my favourite form of comedy tends to be those on the darker, bleaker side. Let's face it, when you slip on the banana skin is a tragedy, but when someone else does, it's comedy, to use an old cliche. And there's something about Jewish humour that strips away everything, and leaves the human core behind. Such was the case when I watched the film A Serious Man, made and directed by those masters of the black joke, the Coen Brothers.
At the start, we see a very poor couple living in the Jewish Pale in Russia. The husband has come home late, but Velvel has quite a story to tell, meeting an old friend of the family on the road and offering him a place to stay for the night. But his wife, Dora is furious, and tells him a very disturbing story, that the mysterious guest is a dybbuk. And at the end of the sequence, she pronounces We are cursed.
Leap ahead to the 1960's, where Professor Lawerence Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) has become an observer in his own life, cut off from his family, his career as a mathematics teacher is floundering on the subject of tenure, and not quite sure what more is going to drop on his head.
For example, his son Danny (Aaron Wolff), is failing at Hebrew school, listening to a transistor when he ought to be learning, his daughter Sarah (Jenny McManus) is running a bit wild and squabbling with her brother, and his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is asking for a divorce so she can be with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who just happens to be Larry's friend. Worst still, Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind) is crashing on the family couch and an Asian student (David Kang) with limited English and worse grades is trying to bribe his way to a passing grade. There's the redneck neighbor who is trying to hustle over the property line of the family home
The first rabbi, Rabbi Nachtner is out, and the junior rabbi is filling in. It's not at all a success. Then there's his lawyer, (Alan Arkin), sleek and polished. When Gopnik finally sees Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner) it isn't much help either, telling the story of Dr. Sussman (Michael Tezla) and the Goy's teeth. And things continue to spiral out of control and turning very strange for Larry, in what appears to be a cosmic collision between ordinary life and You-Know-Who, with all sorts of crazed events coming fast and quick on Larry's head...
Let's face it, we all get that occassional wakeup call from God. And this time, Larry's not only trying to ignore the phone, he's ready to fling it out the window. I found myself laughing quite a bit at this dark comedy. The stories are outrageous, the son who is studying for his bar mitzvah is a hoot and the terror of that test of Jewish manhood, and the universe is descending into a vast pit of misery. And then there's Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell) and his dragon of a secretary.
This film isn't for everyone. Depending on your knowledge of Judaism, and how comedy is used in the culture, you might or might not enjoy the film. I had a great time with it, but then, I know this culture fairly well, and the Coen brothers knew how to hit the perfect pitch with Larry's catastrophes.
In English and Yiddish, with subtitles, and some very adult content such as adultery, drug use, prostitution, sex nude sunbathing and the like. So it is not for children of any age, and someone will get offended at some point depending on how sensitive they are.
All in all, this come in about four stars if you're Jewish, and about three stars if you're not. It all depends on how skewed your view of the universe is, and how well you can laugh at the great cosmic joke of modern life. The ending, however, may be a bit unsettling to some.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age