A Serious Man (2009)
The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, have been making stupendous movies for three decades, but they have never really gone too introspective. Usually their movies follow quirky characters making poor decisions and getting in too deep in a cruel world. A Serious Man is the first Coen film that feels personal. Set in the same landscape of the Coen’s own upbringing, 1960s Minnesota, A Serious Man gives a few insights into how these two remarkable men became who the filmmaking geniuses they are today. But if that isn’t enough for film fans, the movie is also hilarious and brilliant.
It’s 1967 in suburban Minneapolis. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a meek physics professor up for tenure. Larry is beset at all sides, from his redneck neighbor encroaching on his land, to being bribed by a Korean student unhappy with his grade, to the news that his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for his colleague, the more dignified Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Sy suggests that the best course of action is for Larry to move out to a hotel: “The Jolly Roger is eminently habitable.” The tenure board is having second thoughts because of anonymous letters, Larry’s daughter is stealing money from his wallet for a nose job, his son spends more time getting high than practicing for his bar mitzvah, and Larry’s unemployed, socially awkward brother (Richard Kind) is sleeping on his couch. Larry seeks counsel from three rabbis and tries to find meaning as to why his life is spinning out of control.
This is a bleak comedy with almost all of the laughs coming from how much worse things get for Larry. Now, it’s not a pitch black comedy, something akin to being loathsome and eager to push an envelope; you simply can’t help but laugh at how he universe is ganging up on this poor man. His life is spiraling out of control and he is helpless to stop it, and his search for some sort of theological wisdom just leaves him more confused. The various rabbis don’t really have an answer to explain his suffering, and instead they each give comically nonsensical answers or stories. The junior rabbi, projecting his own low stature, asks Larry to seek God in small things, like the parking lot highlighted by his office’s lone window. “Just look at that parking lot,” he gushes hopefully. One rabbi gives a fantastic story about a Jewish dentist discovering a strange Hebrew message carved on a patient’s (a goy’s) teeth. The story eventually goes nowhere and the rabbi’s advice is merely a shoulder shrug and this bit of feeble wisdom: “Helping others? It couldn’t hurt.” To the Coens, Larry is the modern-day equivalent of Job, befalling misery and looking heavenward to ask, “Why me?” He could easily be any one of us. In the face of turmoil, it feels like the Coens prescription is to laugh, the only way to remain sane in this world. And so we do laugh, dubiously, and this is how we cope with life and its ongoing uncertainty.
And A Serious Man is seriously funny. I snorted out loud three times, unable to control my growing guffaws. The supporting group of characters is all wonderfully utilized, popping in for a perfectly timed plot development or a joke. This movie is relentlessly funny, structured like a runaway car that picks up momentous speed. Not a single frame feels at waste. The conversations between the supporting characters are priceless; every character has their precise place in this narrative, and the Coens manage them brilliantly. The writing is intricate and the Coens again showcase their magnificent ear for local color. Each of these people has a different speech pattern, from one Hebrew school kid’s abundant use of the F-bomb, to Larry’s daughter insisting she has to use the bathroom to always wash her hair, to Larry’s bathroom-hogging brother’s conditional response of, “Out in a minute.” It’s almost like a musical how well the various comedic elements harmonize. The mostly unknown cast of actors is all superb; I love how the Coens select actors with such great, easily recognizable faces. These people stand out just visually. Stuhlbarg, a theater veteran, is a terrific lead, and his performance is steeped in pursed-lip incredulity. I loved every conversation with the powerfully unctuous Sy Ableman, a character who hides his distaste in pompous vocabulary. I loved Larry’s interactions with his South Korean blackmailer and his broken English. I loved how Larry’s son will interrupt important occasions just to complain about the TV picture quality of F-Troop. I loved that the only person concerned for Larry’s well-being is the Columbia records salesman who signed up Larry for a subscription because he failed to reject their offer.
I haven’t done extensive research on this one, but A Serious Man may be the most Jewish film ever, or at least since Barbara Streisand cross-dressed in Yentl. I’m not talking movies that explore a significant chapter in Jewish history, like the Holocaust, but I can think of no other movie so steeped in the minutia of Jewish culture. A Serious Man even opens with a seemingly unrelated anecdote with a 19th century Eastern European Jewish couple arguing, completely in Yiddish, whether a guest is alive or a dybbuk (demon). Not only do we get notable religious events and observances like bar mitzvahs, sitting shiva, counsel from rabbis, the concept of a religious divorce known as a get so that a “serious man” could remarry in the faith, but the Coens get everything right down to the tiniest detail, like the exact sound of soup slurping. Even the overall tone, perseverance in the face of struggle, is an extremely Jewish perspective given what has transpired historically to the Jewish people.
The abrupt ending will likely win no favors from the people that thought they were shortchanged by No Country For Old Men‘s anticlimactic close, but it certainly fits the movie’s bleak worldview. Larry is, by his own accounts, trying to be a “serious man” in an ever-changing community, so beware what happens if he compromises his moral values. The pessimistic finale leaves much to the imagination and whether you want to connect the events as uncoordinated random plot points, or as an ongoing celestial judgment, well the Coens are canny enough to let you figure it out. They don’t have any more answers than the rabbi and the goy’s teeth.
This will not be a movie for everyone, especially considering 90 percent of the laughs come from one man’s unrelenting misery. Larry isn’t exactly the deepest character, making it spotty to emotionally invest in his troubles. However, I found him to be an everyman cipher allowing the audience a safe entry point into the Coen spectacle of doom. The Coen brothers have always been technical marvels, but they seem to have raised their inconsiderable talents at the close of this decade. No Country for Old Men was a genre masterpiece, Burn After Reading was an entertaining farce, but perhaps A Serious Man is the most lasting picture. How do we explain bad things and bad things happening to people striving to be serious men and women in the world? I?’m not sure if the Coens have an answer or even think the answer is important. I think their viewpoint is to enjoy the ride and laugh while you can. As the Korean student’s father puts it, “Accept the mystery.”
Nate’s Grade: A