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On Movies: 'A Serious Man' is seriously funny - and tragic

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 15, 2009 - For Larry Gopnik, life is just one damned thing after another.

Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) is the bedeviled protagonist of "A Serious Man," the dark, ambitious, thought-provoking and, at times, very funny new movie from Joel and Ethan Coen. The year is 1967, a hard time to be a college professor and the father of teenagers. (The Coen brothers' father was, like Larry, an academic who lived with his family in a mostly Jewish suburb of Minneapolis called St. Louis Park.)

Larry's son smokes pot and listens to Janis Joplin and Santana when he's supposed to be preparing for his bar mitzvah. Larry's daughter is stealing money from Larry's wallet to save up for a nose job. Larry's wife has fallen in love with Sy Abelman, a smarmy widower, and she wants a divorce. In the meantime, she wants Larry to move into the Jolly Roger motel because, she says, she doesn't want the kids to suffer from the tension between them.

At Larry's college, a student is trying to bribe or blackmail Larry into giving him a passing grade in math. And someone is sending anonymous hate mail about Larry to the committee that is considering giving him tenure.

Larry's surly, gun-toting next-door neighbor, who looks like a German storm trooper gone to seed, plans on building a giant two-car garage inches from Larry's property line. Larry needs money and lawyers, if not guns, but he is virtually broke, a condition exacerbated by dunning phone calls from the Columbia Record Club. The club contends Larry owes them a bundle because someone who likes Janis Joplin and Santana has been charging records in Larry's name.

About all Larry needs to complete the full picture of a modern-day Job is boils, which the Coen brothers in their infinite wisdom have chosen to inflict upon Larry's brilliant but insane brother, Arthur (Richard Kind). Arthur has moved in with the Gopniks and spends hours a day locked in the only bathroom with a mechanized device that sucks pus from a cyst on his neck. Arthur sleeps on the couch. When Larry is kicked out of the marital bed, he sets up a cot in the living room next to Arthur, and the brothers venture into one another's dreams, which tend to be nightmares.

At one point, when so many woes have been piled on Larry's shoulders that we fear he will collapse, the bleak mood brightens a tad and Larry thinks he can glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel. But you know what they say about the light at the end of the tunnel.

Larry needs help. Why, he wonders, is God treating him this way, and what can he do about it? Larry visits a couple of younger rabbis. They are of little help, although the sessions, which abound in miscommunication and other absurdities, are quite entertaining. For the audience, at least.

Like Woody Allen in "Crimes and Misdemeanors," Larry eventually comes to pin all his hopes on meeting with an ancient and revered rabbi who reportedly is wise in the ways of God and man.

In understanding his condition, which is, after all, the human condition, Larry might benefit from paying more attention to the complex mathematical formulas that he rapidly scrawls on an enormous blackboard for his bored class. The formulas describe the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and the riddle of Schrodinger's cat, both of which suggest that, at the subatomic level, things happen for no apparent reason. In a sense, "A Serious Man" is actually a movie about subatomic physics. What could be funnier? Or more tragic?

It turns out that the ancient rabbi does know a thing or two about how to survive the low blows of life. His wisdom emerges from an unlikely Scriptural source in one of the funniest scenes in the movie. "A Serious Man" is a comedy, but, like the Coen brothers' 1991 film "Barton Fink," it's a serious comedy, an unforgiving one. It's so serious and unforgiving, all you can do is laugh.

Opens Fri., Oct. 16

'More Than a Game'

If the Coen brothers and their updating of the trials of Job have you down in the dumps, rise up and go see "More Than a Game," an unabashed feel-good movie about basketball that has an advantage over "Hoosiers" -- it actually happened.

Four black kids get together to play basketball at a Salvation Army gymnasium in rust-belt Akron, Ohio, and as they grow into high-schoolers and add a fifth member to the group, they stick together and become almost unbeatable. Fame descends upon them, they get cocky, lose a big game, and come back the better for it, with a second chance at the high-school national championship. The big game provides the emotional climax of the film, but not the ending.

Most of the young men end up playing college or professional basketball in one place or another. One of them is LeBron James, who now is one of the three or four best players in the world.

The story of Le Bron James, raised in poverty by a tough-minded single mother, is an inspirational one even without some of the sentimental flourishes director Kristopher Belman throws in from time to time. But Belman does not neglect the failures and triumphs of the other four young men, or of their coach, whose son was one of James' teammates.

Belman shot many of the high school scenes himself and managed to scrounge up a remarkable amount of earlier video footage of James and his friends playing ball, going back to when they were 11 years old. Watching these kids develop into mature athletes and, it would appear, mature human beings, is one of the rewards of the movie. Although James is now a superstar, he is by all appearances unspoiled by fame and riches, and all five of the young men remain friends.

Is a cliche a cliche if it's true? No matter -- this documentary, which in its heart is about friendship and loyalty, provides a wonderful lift to the spirits.

Opens Fri., Oct. 16

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies. 

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