A Serious Man
Dirs: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
The Coen Brothers love to keep the audience at arm’s length. Though the duo has produced some amazing films since their 1984 debut Blood Simple, the charges of soullessness and intentionally obtuse have been lobbed at even their best work. Even the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men had its detractors for its wide-open spaces and lack of a traditional, Hollywood ending.
But No Country is actually an important benchmark in the Coens’ career. While the team’s previous films were filled with lovable losers and redeemable malcontents, the films that followed, Burn After Reading and A Serious Man, continue to prescribe to the bleak worldview set forth by No Country. Every character in Burn was contemptuous, a cast of shallow, self-absorbed types trying to fuck and fuck over everyone in their paths. It definitely says something when the most likable character is hacked to death with a hatchet.
A Serious Man, on the other hand, like The Big Lebowski puts likable characters into extraordinary situations. But while the Dude abides in Lebowski, there is no way out for the people in A Serious Man. Beginning with the quote “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you,” A Serious Man is like watching the book of Job if such a section appeared in the Torah. Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a Jewish physics professor in a 1967 Minneapolis suburb. Larry’s life, to put it bluntly, is in the shitter. His wife (Sari Lennick) is about to leave him, his soon-to-be Bar-Mitzvahed son (Aaron Wolff) owes marijuana money to the neighborhood bully and his daughter is more interested in doing her hair than the travails of her family. On top of it all, Larry is being strong-armed into giving a Korean student a passing grade and a poison letter campaign is threatening his chance of tenure. As more and more tragedies befall poor Larry, he frequently asks, “What did I do?”
Therein lays the spiritual question of this film, the Coens’ most Jewish to date. What did Larry to deserve such an ill hand in life? Though a self-contained prologue completely in Yiddish intimates a familial curse, the Coens perhaps have an even more simple answer. What does God care? Are we so self-possessed that we believe that God really watches over our every tragedy and foible? With nowhere left to turn, Larry visits three different rabbis to seek out the root of his bad luck.
Though I may be painting A Serious Man to be a bleak tragedy, the Coens once again know how to tie laughter to even the grimmest moments. But our laughter may be cautious as it is impossible to not to feel for Larry. Unlike other Coen characters like Barton Fink and Billy Bob Thornton’s Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There, the brothers make us feel more for Larry as they dig deep into his psyche. Stuhlbarg turns in a nuanced performance, trying to maintain his dignity as the film’s twin gods, Joel and Ethan Coen, shower him with tragedy. But while Barton Fink and Ed Crane each took a proactive part in their destruction, Larry Gopnick simply exists.
By the time A Serious Man ends in a stunner of a conclusion, the Coen Brothers have once again pulled off a magic trick, forcing us to search for meaning in a series of scenes that possibly exist as abstractions only to obfuscate a lack of depth. While one character advises Larry to just “accept the mystery,” it may be more difficult for audiences to accept similar advice from the Coens. Maybe there is a kernel of truth at the center of this film’s dark heart, but separating it from the duo’s laconic world view may be an exercise in futility.