09/28/2009 08:44 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Movie review: A Serious Man

"Man know thyself! All wisdom centers there!"
- Edward Young

Yeah, right. Life is so weird, so unpredictable - and other clichés to that effect - that self-knowledge sometimes just doesn't cut it. No wonder we seek answers in religion, philosophy or whatever else crosses our paths that looks like it will do the trick.

But as Joel and Ethan Coen posit in their fascinatingly funny and offbeat new film, A Serious Man, there are no answers - or at least no simple answers. And even the complicated answers are open to interpretation - and of little solace to Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), the hero of this film.

Or to his son Danny (Aaron Wolff), who still owes the class bully $25 for a lid of grass (ahh, the pre-inflation days of 1967). Danny spends more time smoking pot than he does learning his Torah portion for his rapidly approaching bar mitzvah.

The Coens' world in this film is Minneapolis circa 1967, in the suburb of St. Louis Park where they grew up (about six blocks away from me). The Gopniks are your normal suburban Jewish family, until Larry's world starts to collapse around him.

Larry is a physics professor (at, one assumes, the University of Minnesota), where he's up for tenure. But his department chair keeps offering passive-aggressive warnings about the fact that the tenure committee has been receiving anonymous letters defaming Larry's character: "Not that we'll consider them - but I wanted you to know we've been getting them."

Larry is also being harassed by a Korean student, who received an F on Larry's midterm, which could cost him his scholarship. The student tries to bribe Larry to change the grade, then denies bribing him, then attempts to blackmail him for taking a bribe.

Meanwhile, Larry's house has been invaded by his brother Arthur (Richard Kind), who seems to spend all his time in the house's lone bathroom, employing an unsavory device to drain a sebaceous cyst. That causes a regular outcry from Larry's teen-age daughter, who's upset and not getting enough mirror time - and who also accuses young Danny of stealing money from her purse.

But Arthur's invasion is nothing compared to the incursion into Larry's marriage by family friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a widower who has been having an affair with Larry's wife, Judith (Sari Lennick). Judith sits Larry down and tells him things have to change, eventually sending him to the nearby hotel, the Jolly Roger.

The Coens construct a world where a rational, serious person like Larry sees threats from all directions, even as he tries to simply go about his business. His neighbor on one side seems to be encroaching on Larry's property line - and may just be anti-Semitic. His neighbor on the other side is a woman who sunbathes topless and smokes pot - and appears to be flirting with Larry.

Know thyself? Larry doesn't have a prayer - particularly when his friends tell him the answer to his problems may come if he goes and talks to the rabbi at the synagogue.

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