A Serious Man
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Viewed: October 29, 2009
Format: Theatrical Print (Landmark Tivoli Theater)
A - Is it even conceivably a coincidence that A Serious Man, which draws more candidly from the autobiographical outlines of Joel and Ethan Coen than any of their films to date, is also one of their most desolate and sobering meditations on human suffering? The film brims with mordant wit and a plethora of grotesque, wretchedly amusing characters, but it doesn’t aspire to be a black comedy-of-errors in the mold of Burn After Reading. Rather, the Coens have delivered a work of spiritual and mortal terror that manages to be both absurd and disquieting, a much closer relation to Barton Fink and No Country For Old Men than any of the brothers’ screwball pleasures. In the hands of the Coens, the tribulations of a Jewish professor in 1967 suburbia become the stuff of hoary musings on misfortune, culpability, and the seeming uncaring cruelty of God. Make no mistake: A Serious Man is a miserable film. It’s also an exquisite example of the Coens’ unparalleled talent for blending the grim and the droll into a bewitching cinematic gestalt.
The film opens with a fable: in a snowbound shetl—the year is never specified, but the environs look appropriately Tsarist—a husband and wife quarrel about an esteemed rabbi (Fyvush Finkel) that the husband has met along the road and invited home. The wife maintains that the rabbi has been dead for three days, and that her husband has unwittingly brought a malevolent spirit, a dybbuk, into their household. The husband sees only a friendly and respected old man, and desperately attempts to paper over his wife’s anxiety; she perceives an emissary of misfortune and resolves to act accordingly. The connection between this prologue and the primary story is not apparent at the outset, but the Coens repeatedly allude to its themes: the different ways of perceiving adversity and the different strategies for dealing with it.
We then journey from the Old World to the New, as the Coens usher us into the life of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at an unspecified Midwestern college where the tumultuous 1960s haven’t quite alighted yet. Larry’s life is hardly unbearable, but it is filled with indignities. Most conspicuous are his ungrateful kids, a menacing thick-necked Gentile neighbor, and his unemployed brother Arthur (Richard Kind, perfectly cast) who is sleeping on the couch and monopolizing the bathroom with his cyst-draining rituals. Still, Larry is devoted to his job and his family, and while he isn’t especially observant in the faith, he believes he has a good handle on what it means to be a moral person. When a flunking Korean-American student (David Kang) turns up to haltingly appeal for a passing grade, Larry painstakingly explains why this would not be fair to the other students. This doesn’t deter the young man from passing Larry a bribe that he discovers only later.
It is roughly at this point that cracks begin to proliferate throughout poor Larry’s life. While some are fresh calamities, others have been forming for some time, unbeknown to Larry. His wife Judith (Seri Lennick) suddenly confesses her “friendship” with a local widower, Sy (Fred Melamed), and demands a divorce—for no apparent reason other than her boredom with Larry. For his part, the verbose and peculiar Sy is disturbingly affable about the whole thing, as though being Larry’s pal were more important than bedding his wife. Larry puts up a weak protest, but soon finds himself living out of the local fleabag motor lodge. Things get worse. Arthur, who is likely mentally ill, runs afoul of the law. Larry’s teenage son and daughter may be stealing money, to fund their marijuana purchases and nose job, respectively. Someone has been writing anonymous letters to torpedo Larry’s application for tenure. His divorce lawyer’s fees are piling up. He gets in a car accident. A collector from a record club won’t stop calling him at work. To add insult to injury, the housewife next door, Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker), has taken to sunbathing nude. Larry’s son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), meanwhile, contends with his own problems: a confiscated transistor radio, a hulking drug-dealer to whom he owes money, and a looming bar mitzvah. (The record he uses to practice the Hebrew cant serves as a soundtrack to the crumbling of the Gopnik household.)
One of the little strokes of genius in A Serious Man is that while Larry is bookish and a tad fretful in the way one envisions a Midwestern Jewish academic would be, he isn’t a nebbishy caricature. Thus, when it begins to seem as though God is smacking him around out of sheer malice, his progressively hysterical state scans as authentic distress, rather than the overreaction of a neurotic. In his desperation, Larry eventually turns to the synagogue, and seeks the wisdom of three separate rabbis, none of whom prove to be much use. Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg) spouts airy pabulum; Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner) offers only chuckles and a bizarre anecdote; and the venerable Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell) won’t even see him.
There are echoes of the biblical tale of Job in Larry’s plight, but the resemblance is only passing. Larry is hardly the most reverential man in his community, and while the book of Job is focused as much on God and dialectics as the man himself, the Coens’ film is most assiduously about Larry’s travails. Although the American Jewish experience provides the backdrop for the film’s explorations of personal and theological despair, A Serious Man is a marvelously universal work, one that any filmgoer should be able to relate to. It is about that nagging question that presents itself whenever life takes a steaming crap on us: Why is this happening to me? In other words, A Serious Man is, at bottom, the Coens’ theodicy film, a religious companion to No Country’s pitiless confrontation of ethics and justice in a post-faith world.
Yet the Coens, resisting some of the shallow mirth that characterized Burn After Reading, have deeper ambitions than mere goggling at the awfulness of life. Larry’s mantra of protest—”I didn’t do anything!”—operates under the flawed assumption that the world follows crude karmic logic, where every calamity must necessarily have a corresponding sin at its root. Sometimes shit just happens. On the other hand, Larry’s blamelessness is not so clear. His lament can also be read as “I didn’t do anything!,” which is an apt description of his approach to life. Larry has spent his adulthood coasting, blind to the forces that are slipping past him and arraying themselves against him. His existence is characterized by inertia. The dybbuk of the prologue is evoked explicitly when a dead man begins to torment Larry’s dreams, but also more subtly by his repeated lament. The evil spirit, it is explained, appears when living relations fails to sit shiva for the deceased. Misfortune therefore results from a sin of omission, from “not doing anything.” In this the Coens establish a somewhat provocative moral order, where the mere act of being an oblivious doormat is a kind of sin that invites doom. On the other other hand, sometimes shit just happens.
It’s a testament to the Coens’ talent that it now seems perfunctory to acknowledge that, aesthetically speaking, their latest film is nearly pitch-perfect, a paradoxical pleasure given Larry’s wretched misfortunes. The performances all shine, but Stuhlbarg is the fulcrum, and as Larry he skillfully conveys the sense of a man in free-fall, flailing for any handhold that presents itself. Longtime collaborator and cinematographic virtuoso Roger Deakins provides the kind of lensing to the Coens’ vision that is all the more remarkable for the breathtaking consistency of its excellence, dead-on and mesmerizing down to the final image. And what an ending A Serious Man boasts! The naysayers who groused over No Country’s sudden and deeply affecting cut to black will likely be perplexed again. The Coens cross-cut across scenes where calamity suddenly looms over two separate characters, one who senses with gnawing horror what is approaching, the other oblivious to his peril until it may be too late. We don’t know what comes next. Except that someone will ask, “Why me?”