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Serious Business

Oscar winners Joel and Ethan Coen and Tony Award nominee Michael Stuhlbarg discuss the new film A Serious Man. logo
Joel and Ethan Coen
(© Joseph Marzullo.WENN)
Oscar winners Joel and Ethan Coen are known for bringing their own vision to such films as No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Barton Fink, and Burn After Reading, but their latest work, A Serious Man (which opens on October 2) is perhaps their most personal film to date.

The movie tells the tragicomic story of Larry Gopnik (played by Tony Award nominee Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish Midwestern college professor in the late 1960s who has a crisis of faith. "We grew up as Jewish kids in a suburb of Minneapolis and we know that being Jewish there was very different from being Jewish in a big city like New York or Los Angeles," says Joel. "The film also shows some of the results of post-war shifts, as minorities moved to the suburbs."

Still, A Serious Man is neither a standard social drama nor a typical dysfunctional family tale. It focuses on Larry, a latter-day Job who must deal with his unhappy wife, an unemployed brother with social (and possible mental) problems, and a disgruntled student trying to bribe him, among other trials -- all at the same time his son Danny prepares for his Bar Mitzvah. "Making a film always imposes more order and rationality on the ideas you start out with," says Ethan.

However, some of the finished product may not seem so rational to audiences, such as the short opening parable (spoken in Yiddish with English subtitles) about a husband and wife visited by a dybbuk (an evil spirit possessing the soul of a dead person) or the bit about the dentist and the "Goy's teeth" imprinted with a message in Hebrew.

Finding the right cast, which includes Richard Kind as Larry's brother Arthur, Sari Lennick as Larry's wife Judith, Fred Melamed as Judith's pompous lover, Sy, Fyvush Finkel as the Dybbuk, and Adam Arkin as Larry's attorney, was extremely important to the pair. And as the Coens admit, it took some time to cast Stuhlbarg, even though they were familiar with his work. "We actually knew him from his work with the 52nd Street Project, which my wife [Frances McDormand] is involved in," explains Joel.

Michael Stuhlbarg and Adam Arkin in A Serious Man
(© Focus Features)
For his part, Stuhlbarg couldn't be happier with the opportunity. "A Serious Man is my first lead in a movie," he says. "For a while, I was up for three different roles: Larry, Arthur, and the husband in the little opening Yiddish parable. Frankly, I would have played anything just to work with the Coens. In fact, they even had me studying Yiddish for the parable. And I was right, because they have such affection and respect for their actors."
One of Stuhlbarg's biggest challenges was being believable as a physics professor. "Larry has got these long, involved mathematical proofs which he rattles off with ease -- especially the one about Schrodinger's Cat and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. So I had to study with a real physics professor to get up to speed," he says. "This isn't a gym body, so there was no need for physical preparation. Except for the time I get my head bashed into the blackboard. When we first shot it, I told them, 'I know I can do better,' so we shot it again. And I got a spontaneous round of applause on the set."

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