- Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
- Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind, Fyvush Finkel, David Kang, Adam Arkin
- 105 min.
- Release Date
In the days preceding his son’s bar mitzvah, Jewish physics professor Larry Gopnik endures a progression of trials and tribulations that would drive anyone to madness. To find some rationale behind his unbelievably bad luck, he talks to several rabbis and asks Hashem (Hebrew for “the name”) what lesson he should learn from his misery. No answer comes. Later, during one of his lectures, Larry explains Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to a befuddled room of students, insisting “Even if you can’t figure it out, you’re still responsible for it on the midterm.”
Joel and Ethan Coen wade through questions and offer no answers in A Serious Man, a film that solidifies their career-long pursuit to illustrate the futility in searching for a grand substance that ties everything together. Having grown up in the film’s surroundings, the largely Jewish neighborhood of St. Louis Park, just outside Minneapolis, the Coen Brothers avoid using their background to fuel nostalgia or sentimental remembrances of their childhood. As with all their films, it explores a perfect unison between setting and story. Where better than Jewish suburbia in 1967 could the filmmakers conceive an allegory rooted in the dangers of searching for meaning where there is none?
Larry, played with upturned eyes and a furled brow by Michael Stuhlbarg, seems destined to be stepped on, humiliated, and ignored by his family and friends. His predicament begins when his wife Judy (Sari Lennick) asks for a ritual divorce, which would make her free to remarry family friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). His daughter wants a nose job and goes to friends’ houses to wash her hair, only because Larry’s indolent brother (Richard Kind) hogs the bathroom to drain the cyst on his neck. Larry’s detached, pot-smoking son telephones him while he meets with the divorce attorney (Adam Arkin), asking if he’ll come home to fix the antenna and clear the reception for F-Troop. On the roof, Larry looks about and spies his attractive neighbor sunbathing nude in her backyard; on the other side, the goy neighbor posts plans to inch over the property line with his new boat shed. Then Judy asks Larry to move into a motel with his brother, so her new fiancé can move in, at least while details of the divorce are worked out—as consolation, she maintains there’s no bedroom “whoopsie-doopsie” going on yet.
Things aren’t much better at work, where Larry’s pending tenure comes under fire; someone has been sending the review board anonymous letters disparaging his character. Meanwhile, a failing South Korean student attempts to bribe him for a passing grade, and when Larry refuses to budge, the boy’s father threatens to sue for defamation. His office phone rings nonstop with calls from someone from Columbia House trying to collect on a late bill for records Larry didn’t order. Through it all, there’s no last straw or breaking point. Larry endures these events with visible strain, but he doesn’t break down. The only thing sustaining him is the hope that Hashem seeks to teach him some lesson through his ongoing misfortune. Larry visits three rabbis to help clarify that lesson, but their words of lax-if-well-meaning guidance remain as cryptic as the film’s ending.
Anticlimactic as the conclusion may be for some, the Coens have a long history of making audiences ponder the meaning behind their films. Barton Fink made us wonder what John Turturro’s psychotic neighbor kept in that box, whereas more recently some felt baffled by No Country for Old Men’s ruminative last scene. Raising Arizona left Nicholas Cage peering into the uncertain future in his dreams. The Big Lebowski’s narrator loses his train of thought when explaining the purpose of his story. In Burn After Reading, FBI headquarters shrugs off the film’s events as pointless, just a bunch of coincidences. Such examples go on and on.
The joy in their direction comes from their signature idiosyncrasies, their sense of distorted reality, and their ability to layer their storytelling. Larry’s existential dilemma serves up an allegory that’s intentionally void of a straightforward thesis, but it’s also no coincidence that Larry’s predicament parallels that of The Bible’s Job. Not unlike No Country for Old Men, the means to unlocking this film exists within the first scenes. Whereas Tommy Lee Jones’ narration gave way to the human despair and savagery that followed it, this film’s prologue tells a fable to help illustrate the remainder’s purpose: It involves a Jewish couple in an old village who argue about whether or not their noble guest is a dybbuk (a Jewish specter), and the tale seems to have severe implications on the rest of the film. Perhaps the whole film is a fable from which audiences must derive their own meaning. Someone asks you for help with their troubles. You tell them, “Watch A Serious Man for your answer.” They watch and find something of profound resonance therein.
The Coens demand audience interpretation with their films; they’re almost post-modern, even surrealists in that sense. When Sy repeatedly slams Larry’s head against the chalkboard where the aforementioned Uncertainty Principle is written, we can imagine the Coens speaking directly to those viewers who seek a tidy ending and balk when they’re forced to think. Regardless of the occasional unimaginative whiner in the audience, that the Coens require so much participation from viewers and yet remain both artistically and commercially successful presents a wonderful oddity within itself. That they’ve done it here mostly with unknown Jewish performers, without their usual cavalcade of celebrity actors like George Clooney and Frances McDormand, is even more significant.
But perhaps, as Sy suggests to Larry in his none-too-subtle way, we should just accept what happens to us and move on. After all, the human condition requires that we endure; looking for answers or meaning prevents forward motion. A more graceful explanation resides in the opening quote from Elie Wiesel’s book Rashi: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” By doing the opposite and dwelling on his problems, Larry slowly kills himself. The Coens resolve that no matter how wearisome the film’s events may seem, they’re just things that happen. This perspective makes A Serious Man curious as a narrative, but wholly momentous as a parable, implanting a prolonged sense of reflection in the viewer, even if the point is to stop the viewer from reflecting. It’s a plainly opaque film, haunting and perplexing, shot almost like horror at times. And what could be more horrific than realizing there’s no purpose to life?