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Originally published October 8, 2009 at 3:00 PM | Page modified October 8, 2009 at 5:01 PM

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Movie review

'A Serious Man': A funny, personal film by the Coens

A review "A Serious Man" — one of the Coen Brothers' most personal, and likable, films.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

'A Serious Man,' with Michael Stuhlbarg, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. 105 minutes. Rated R for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence. Harvard Exit

MOVIE REVIEW 3 stars

"Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you" is the on-screen quote (from the 11th-century rabbi Rashi) that opens Joel and Ethan Coen's wise and funny film, "A Serious Man." And it's what the film's main character, physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), strives for, despite an ever-lengthening list of trials.

Larry's wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), wants to leave him for Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed), a doleful-toned twit whom she sees as "a serious man." Son Danny (Aaron Wolff) would rather smoke pot than study for his bar mitzvah; daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) longs for a nose job and spends all her time washing her hair. Meanwhile, Larry's being accused of "moral turpitude" at work, where he's getting anonymous letters threatening his tenure and a student is trying to bribe him. His homeless brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is camped out in his living room, draining his sebaceous cyst (a very Coen Brothers touch). And his sexy neighbor just might be trying to seduce him.

What's a good man, trapped in such a life in 1967 Midwestern suburbia, to do? Larry, desperate, consults a rabbi — several of them, in fact — wanting to learn how to be a good man and a good Jew. One tells him to appreciate the beauty and integrity of a parking lot; another shares a long story about a dentist who found Yiddish words carved onto a gentile patient's teeth. This doesn't help Larry much (though it's certainly entertaining), and perhaps it isn't meant to; serenity and acceptance, he learns, must be found from within.

The Coen brothers aren't exactly purveyors of warm-and-fuzzy films (with the exception of the oddly adorable "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"); most often, their films dare us to love them, gazing at us from a cool distance. "A Serious Man" is, by their own admission, their most personal film: The brothers grew up Jewish in the suburban Midwest in the 1960s. While there are plenty of oddball touches, some mystifying (like the Yiddish- language prologue, set in a Polish shtetl and seeming to have little to do with what follows it; and the abrupt ending) — we see in it some genuine fondness for the characters.

And its cast, mostly drawn from theater, wins us over, despite the tone of constant kvetching and misfortune. Melamed, as Abelman, is wickedly funny; this "serious man" speaks as if narrating a film for public television, with periods after every few words: "Larry. How are you." Kind's Uncle Arthur is the film's quiet soul, and the wonderful Stuhlbarg, playing a man increasingly despairing yet still possessed of a sweetly boyish enthusiasm, is its heart. He's perpetually being trapped in corners, willingly offering up his own flaws. "I watched a Swedish porn film," he randomly admits at one point, sadly inventorying his soul for moral turpitude. Disappointment lowers his features. "It wasn't even erotic."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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