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Film Tells Hilarious Tale of ‘A Serious Man’

Why?

The question in "A Serious Man," the Coen brothers' latest film, is simple enough, if the details are much more complex. Why does God test us, challenge us, punish us? Is there no relief in this life?

They waste no time in asking the question. Answering it is another story, something they really never get around to. But this is a movie that delights in posing the big query, in exploring the limits of tolerance and patience.

It's also hilarious.

It's easy to peg "A Serious Man" as the Coen brothers' most-personal work to date.

After all, what's the runner-up? "Fargo?" ''Blood Simple?" Ethan and Joel Coen specialize in detachment as filmmakers, the more ironic the better. And just because some of the elements of "A Serious Man" may (or may not) reflect their own experiences -- Jewish family life in the suburbs in the '60s, with all the hope, promise and crushing claustrophobia that implies -- it doesn't mean they've left it behind.

They toy mercilessly with their protagonist, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor on the cusp of tenure. From a distance, Larry's life is nondescript, perhaps even pleasant. Up close it's a different story.

His son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is more interested in smoking pot and listening to rock music than preparing for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah. His daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) is secretly saving money for a nose job.

His brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is living in his house, spending most of the time in the bathroom draining a pustule of some kind. A failing student may be bribing him, threatening him with legal action or neither. Someone is sending anonymous letters to the dean, trying to kill his shot at tenure.

Worst of all, his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) has informed him that she is leaving him for Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a pretentious windbag who is, nevertheless, a "serious" man (at least in Judith's eyes).

Throwing in a beautiful neighbor (Amy Landecker) who sunbathes nude is just piling on.

Larry seeks answers from three rabbis, one young and callow, one maddeningly vague, one ancient and too busy to see him (even though he evidently just sits at a desk in his massive office all day, staring into space).

Why is this happening to him? After all, as Larry notes repeatedly, he hasn't done anything.

Aha. Perhaps that's the answer. Then again, while Larry is more a passive observer of his life than an actual participant, he hasn't actively wronged anyone. What's so wrong with that?

A prologue offers a possible explanation -- ancient family curse -- but that proves to be more of a red herring than anything else. No, Larry's problems are existential, and can't be solved with concrete answers. (Watching him teach chaos theory while his life crumbles around him is just another cruel joke.)

For all this, there is a sort of twisted warmth to "A Serious Man." It's the Coen's version of Woody Allen's "Radio Days," a reflection of a life they were a part of, if didn't actually live.

Do we wait for explanations? Do things get better? Or do they just get worse, even when it seems impossible?

The final scene provides a rather startling answer. I think. Answers in this film aren't easy to come by. And it's not incumbent upon the Coens to provide them, if we believe they want us to work to provide them ourselves.

Why not?

Rated R for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence.

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