A Serious Man

The shtetl shtick that opens Joel and Ethan Coen's new movie—Jewish peasant stumbles on an old Hasid who may or may not be a Dybbuk—tips its hat to the great existential comedy A Serious Man might have become if it wasn't buried beneath an avalanche of Ugly Jew iconography. Set in 1967, in a Midwestern Jewish neighborhood like the one the Coens grew up in, A Serious Man is crowded with fat Jews, aggressive Jews, passive-aggressive Jews, traitor Jews, loser Jews, shyster-Jews, emo-Jews, Jews who slurp their chicken soup, and—passing as sages—a clutch of yellow-teethed, know-nothing rabbis. At their center is the beleaguered academic, Larry Gopnik (played by the excellent stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg), a decent geek clinging desperately to his rapidly shredding status quo as his family and his job threaten to fall apart. By way of plot, Larry suffers buckets of abuse from this crew, then seeks spiritual guidance where none is forthcoming until, either by accident or grand design, his life seems to get better all by itself. If this were it, the movie would be no more than another dreary exercise in Coen Brothers sadism. But the visual impact of all these warty, unappetizing Jews carries A Serious Man into the realm of the truly vicious—and God help the rube who can't take the joke.
Starts: Oct. 9. Daily, 2009

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