A FILM REVIEW BY GARY CHEW
Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker), the lonely, comely lady from next door, whispers to Professor Gopnik, "Do you take advantage of the new freedoms?"
The new freedoms of which Mrs. Samsky speaks are rapidly approaching the blind side of the whole of American society just as the Columbia Record Club offers its members Santana's great new album, "Abraxas." Holy Hermann Hesse! And just after "Taking Woodstock," too.
Joel and Ethan Coen, neither of whom could ever be called the goy next door, give us a new film called, "A Serious Man." The story isn't set down along the Pecos as was "No Country for Old Men." No the Coens are up north again, not in Fargo, but just east in adjacent Minnesota.
A brilliant Michael Stuhlbarg plays Professor Larry Gopnik, who confronts the same cultural strife depicted in 1999's "American Beauty." But unlike Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham, Larry isn't fighting for a new lifestyle. The B'nai Abraham middle school physics teacher is simply trying to stay on the good side of Hashem ---a word generally not in a gentile's lexicon.
Larry is a serious man. He's also a wimp, a wuss, a pussy and like everybody in this droll, downbeat comedy (except for the inviting Mrs. Samsky), seems to have a constipated personality.
Larry's wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), wants a divorce. Judith is being counseled by the affable Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Sy is the man Judith plans to marry after she gets the get (a Jewish divorce). She also demands that Larry move out of the family home and live at the local Jolly Roger Motel with his uncle Arthur (Richard Kind), who suffers from just about everything, especially the cyst he has to routinely drain. Uncle Arthur has worn out his welcome in the Gopnik household.
Larry's teenaged daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus), talks like a sailor and his younger son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), speaks the same language as Sarah. The boy is already buying weed from the big kid on the playground. Danny still owes his drug dealer twenty bucks for the last lid purchase.
This is enough for Larry to seek counseling with Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell) who, after giving Larry the rabbi-run-a-round (shuffling the professor off on an assistant) lays an absurd homily on the serious and confused professor. The Coen brothers are terribly cruel to orthodox believers.
Larry is also sweating tenure at B'nai Abraham. His school principal, played exquisitely by Charles Brin, drops by Larry's office with occasional updates as to how the Tenure Committee is proceeding with its decision. Larry squirms.
But, other than a property line dispute with his red neck next door neighbor and avoiding being monetarily bribed by a male student for a better math grade at B'nai Abraham, things are going well for Larry. He's just been given a clean bill of health from his internist. Health is your life, Larry.
Michael Stuhlbarg is great as Larry. And for Tulsans and TU alums, the best way to describe Mr. Stuhlbarg's appearance as Professor Gopnik is to recall what TU Professor Emeritus, Edward Dumit looked like when he was about 30 years: yes, even the spectacles.
All actors in "A Serious Man" play their roles internally, much like the Coens' cast did in "No Country for Old Men." Making it all understatement is a trademark of Joel and Ethan: letting the moviegoers do lots of the work while the brothers play to specific modern-day values and biases. Traditionalists and fundamentalists might be offended by "A Serious Man." It's even possible some will consider the film to be heretical.
If that isn't enough to make you want to go see this hilariously low-keyed fun fest then nothing can.
Phone call from Mr. Mel Brooks!
12/4: now playing at the the Circle Cinema in Tulsa.
Check Yahoo Movies-Tulsa for theaters and times.