Complete A-Z list

Serious Man, A


Stars: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Lennick, George Wyner, Adam Arkin, Simon Helberg, Fred Melamed, Michael Lerner, Amy Landecker

Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

We seem to be going through a run of films that end in the middle and here's another. Just as Lawrence (Stuhlbarg) gets an urgent call from his doctor that may presage bad news, and his son (Aaron Wolff) faces an approaching tornado at his school, the film ends - so be prepared. Mind you, some people may have had enough by this time of this strange comedy from the Coen Brothers (not their finest hour) about a (very) Orthodox-Jewish teacher whose whole life turns into a nightmare.

The film begins with the story of a dybbuk (evil spirit in Jewish lore) in long-ago Poland, which seems unrelated to the rest of the plot. So back to the present (or maybe the 1970s, judging by the references to Jefferson Airplane), where Lawrence finds brother Arthur (Kind) is a lodger he can't dislodge, his sullen wife Rachel (Lennick) wants a divorce because of her love for an elderly friend (Melamed), his daughter (Jessica McManus) sits brushing her hair when she should be at school, and his son has racked up a bill on records that Lawrence knows nothing about.

Further, even as he waits to see whether he's secured a maths tenure at his school, a Korean student (David Kang) insists on getting a pass instead of a fail and leaves an envelope stuffed with dollars in Lawrence's desk. Later the boy's father (Stephen Park) threatens to sue Lawrence for taking a bribe. And don't get me started on the nude-bathing, marijuana-smoking neighbour (Landecker), nor the redneck neigbour (Peter Breitmayer) who comes home from a hunting trip with a enormous stag roped to the roof of his car.

Lawrence consults rabbis and lawyers about his plight, but they bury him in aphorisms and anecdotes.

Some scenes prove to be dreams; unsurprisingly, the film has little narrative grip, if plenty of annoyingly unreal dialogue they should have got Woody Allen to polish. 'Why is Uncle Arthur always in the bathroom?' wails the daughter in one of the film's funnier moments. 'Well,' she's told, 'you know he has to drain his cebaceous cyst.'

David Quinlan

USA 2009. UK Distributor: Universal. Colour by deluxe.
104 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 1, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 1, Swearing 2.

Review date: 15 Nov 2009