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Film making brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, Oscar-winners for the 2007 thriller "No Country For Old Men," turn to the time and place of their own youth for their latest quirky story. Set 40 years ago in their hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota, it is about a middle-aged university professor grappling with a seemingly endless stream of moral choices.
"I've had quite a bit of 'tzuris' [troubles] lately: marital problems, professional, you name it. This is not a frivolous request. This is a serious … I'm a serious … uh, I've tried to be a serious man, you know? Tried to do right."
This is Larry Gopnick at the end of his rope. It seems as though the universe is testing this mild-mannered and dedicated physics professor. At the university he faces students who are too bored to care or are trying to cheat their way to passing grades. At home he struggles to referee the sibling rivalry between his teenaged son and daughter, not noticing that his wife has begun a romance with a family friend:
To cap it off, there are the not-always-legal antics of his unemployed, hypochondriac brother:
Doing what is 'right' is very important to Larry; but he finds it increasingly difficult to determine just what 'right' is.
Acclaimed Broadway stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg stars as this classic tragic hero with a fatal flaw. "If there's any fatal flaw with Larry Gopnick it happens at the moment when his morals or his ethics slip from him. I think it's a very human thing, but I think all tragic heroes - if you want to place him in that category - have a fatal flaw; but it is also the gods …or the Coens …who decide their fate," he says.
Like the Gopnick family, writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen grew up in the Minneapolis suburbs. Like Larry, their father was a college professor. They drew on family and friends for the names of the characters and much of "A Serious Man" plays out in places they knew as youngsters. So is it autobiographical? Ethan Coen calls it a very personal film, but insists it is from their imaginations and not personal experiences.
"It was inspired by where we grew up. In terms of setting it is where and when we were kids. It takes place in a Midwestern Jewish community and is set in the late 1960's - in 1967 - and there was a lot of pleasure in that for us, just in re-creating the period; but beyond that, the story itself and what happens to the characters is all fiction," says Ethan Coen.
Like the melancholy Yiddish music Larry Gopnick listens to as he tries to forget his woes, "A Serious Man" taps into specific details of growing up Jewish in Middle America in the 1960's. The Coens set the scene for this with a Yiddish-language prologue: a short fable set many decades earlier in a tiny European village; but, in typical fashion for the brothers, co-writer Joel Coen suggests it may have little to do with the story that follows.
"We started reading a lot of Yiddish fiction around the time we were writing this. We got interested in that and thought it would be fun and interesting and somehow an 'ambassador' for the movie to begin it with our own version of a Yiddish story, without really understanding why or how it would relate …and, frankly, we don't really understand now why or how it relates, but it felt right," says Joel Cohen.
What also feels right is something they have captured in their previous films: the unique flavor of a time and place in America.
"There is a Midwestern sensibility about it," says Sari Lennick, who plays Larry's wife Judith Gopnick. :I think it is less that we were on the actual street where they may have played stickball or where they actually may have shot their first movie at Minneapolis-Saint Paul airport. I think it is more a sensibility and there is definitely a feeling about the Midwest. I have lived there now for three years. I am originally from Miami and lived in L.A. and New York; and having now lived for three years in the Midwest I can say it is a different kind of place. So I think in terms of their nostalgia, I think we all connected to this area and this very specific world."
"A Serious Man" also features comic actor Richard Kind as "Uncle Arthur" with Adam Arkin as the family lawyer; but many of the supporting players are from the Minneapolis community where the film was shot. The soundtrack includes themes composed by regular Coens' collaborator Carter Burwell blended with rock music of the era, notably a Jefferson Airplane hit that has a role the story.