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DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

In a 2008 acceptance speech after winning an Academy Award for "No Country For Old Men," Joel Coen thanked the industry for allowing him and his brother Ethan to, quote, "continue to play in our corner of the sandbox," unquote. The Coen brother's 14th feature, "A Serious Man" is set in suburban Minneapolis, 1967, not far from the sandbox in which they played as kids.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Joel and Ethan Coen's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's, "No Country For Old Men" had a radical twist for the thriller genre. The hero, Sheriff Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones, gave up. He concluded that the world was ruled by cruelty and chance. God might exist, but he'd gone elsewhere.

"A Serious Man" is the Coens' Jewish take on the question of cosmic injustice. It's set in suburban Minneapolis, where they grew up, in 1967, when Joel was 13 and Ethan, 10. They'd reportedly intended the film to have two protagonists, a 13-year-old boy and his father. But as they wrote the script, the father moved to the center. He's Larry Gopnik, a physics professor affectingly played by Michael Stuhlbarg, a stage actor who's never had a lead role on screen. Like mischievous angels, the Coens seem to enjoy bombarding him with bad things.

At first, his life seems a model of stability. His son is about to be bar mitzvahed, and his college is on the verge of granting him tenure. Then his world begins to get strange — even David Lynchian, if you go by the slanted light on the flat landscape, the hard angles of lawns and fences and ticky-tack houses. Most devastating is the news that his wife has taken up with an older man, a widower named Sy, played by Fred Melemed, who wants her to have a Jewish divorce, a get. The philandering Sy looks like he could play Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof" and fancies himself a moral Jew, or as the movie calls it, a serious man.

Stuhlbarg's Larry endures this misfortune with passive incomprehension. His face tightens, his lips press together from the effort not to scream. He's teaching Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, so his science won't help him understand the forces in the universe. When a friend in leg braces, played by the luminous Katherine Borowitz, says, it's not always easy to figure out what God is trying to tell us, Larry goes to a series of rabbis.

The first is a young assistant, who advises him to appreciate the beauties of God's creation and gestures out the window to a remarkably forgettable parking lot. The second, middle-aged, says God owes us nothing. The obligation goes the other way. There's a third, ancient rabbi, who doesn't ordinarily have office hours. The desperate Larry makes his case to an unsmiling secretary.

(Soundbite of movie, "A Serious Man")

Mr. MICHAEL STUHLBARG (Actor): (As Larry Gopnik) Please I need help. I've already talked to the other rabbis, please. It's not about Danny's bar mitzvah, my boy, Danny, this coming Shabbat, very joyous event. That's all fine. It's more about myself. I've had quite a bit of tsuris, lately. Marital problems, professional, you name it. This is not a frivolous request. This is a - I'm a - I've tried to be a serious man, you know? Tried to do right, be a member of the community, raised Danny, Sarah. They both go to school, Hebrew school, a good breakfast. Well, Danny goes to Hebrew school. Sarah doesn't have time. She mostly washes her hair. Apparently, there are several steps involved but you don't have to tell Marshak that. Just tell him I need help. Please, I need help.

EDELSTEIN: "A Serious Man" is far from perfect. Some of the dialogue is mannered. Larry's wife is a cartoon shrew. And there are too many fleshy close-ups that emphasize things like ear hair. But it's the first of the Coens' films that seems vaguely personal, not just because it has elements of their childhood, but because the tone is less controlled, as if they weren't sure where they were going when they set out to write. Is it a comedy, a tragedy? It's on the border. It's like a broad Jewish joke that slowly becomes a jeremiad, a tale of woe that keeps you wondering if the punch line, when it comes, will make you laugh or want to kill yourself.

Larry's son smokes dope before his bar mitzvah, and the vision of the rabbis from his stoned perspective is both uproarious and oddly consoling. The Coens might not believe in the substance of the Torah, but they seem to respect its solidness in a chaotic world. Their vision is morbid, absurd, but not nihilistic. "A Serious Man" opens with a quote from the Bible scholar, Rashi: Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you. The lesson of this haunting film is stuff happens, and if you're going to lose, lose gracefully.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

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