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“But I didn’t do anything!” wails the hapless Larry Gopnik, over and over, in an increasingly hysterical register, throughout the Coen brothers’ latest feature, “A Serious Man.” But it’s more than just a simple defensive gesture. The phrase itself becomes something of a character in the film, accruing meaning and ambiguity until, by the film’s end, it’s become a sort of prayer for the beleaguered hero. Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg), the possibly-titular protagonist, is a father, a scholar, a Jew, and perhaps most importantly, an innocent. His disclamation is his weapon, his epithet, and finally, a symbol for the film itself. Set in the late ’60s, in a Midwestern Jewish suburb, “A Serious Man” is an existential parable about the dissolution of Larry’s life, as he rapidly loses a grip on his marriage, faith, health, and personal integrity.
The film’s milieu is autobiographical in a way that Joel and Ethan Coen have avoided in their work up to this point. As auteurs (probably the most highly-regarded in America today, other than Martin Scorcese) the Coen Brothers are the consummate disguise-artist duo; they’ve managed to inject their own signature wit and worldview into the gamut of American genre film—the western, the noir, the screwball comedy, the epic—and, at their very best, those interpretations become studies of the genre itself. But “A Serious Man” feels remarkably close to home: set in a place not altogether foreign from the Coen family’s suburban Minnesota origin, in a moment in history when the directors themselves would have been adolescent boys.
What emerges from this apparently more personal approach are themes that have either been addressed more subtly or played as comic foil in the Coens’ previous work. Judaism, dealt with offhandedly in “Miller’s Crossing” and “The Big Lebowski,” moves to the forefront. The film itself is partitioned by Larry’s progressive consultation with his three community rabbis over the dissolution of his marriage, and the prologue is a sort of Yiddish folktale whose sinister climax hangs as a question over the body of the film. Larry is a modern Job: as his wife evicts him for another man (whose funeral he must eventually pay for), his hopes for tenure as a physics professor wane, and his money problems threaten to swallow him, he both endures his trials and, unlike Job, struggles to understand and interpret them with (though, decidedly, without) the help of spiritual advisors.
With Job as a frame of reference, of course, existentialism isn’t far behind. The Coens made their most intelligent stab at the matter with 1991’s “Barton Fink,” a film whose enigma gave life to its pervasive Sartrean tropes. But “A Serious Man” inflames this fascination unto the central antithesis to Larry’s faith: Larry’s first lecture in the film is on superposition—more precisely Schrodinger’s Cat—and later, in a dream, he discourses on the Uncertainty Principle: “This proves that nobody can know anything, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be responsible for it on the midterm!”
Broadly, the film is about a life that has become both conspicuous and unbearable; Larry is lost in the absurd distance between language and clarity, society and reason, existence and nausea. Anecdotally, no filmmakers could be better equipped for rendering this distance—the dialogue is rife with misunderstanding, miscommunication, misdirection and uncomfortable meditations on the body. But taken as whole—especially in light of an ending that feels more slight than clever—this thesis is never as interesting or amusing as its execution.
Storytelling becomes a way to understand both physics and faith: in a half-light that’s at least preferable to total darkness. But the film does well to illustrate how easy it is to miss the point entirely this way. Larry’s second rabbi tells him the story of an orthodontist who finds Hebrew characters chiseled into the back of a goy’s teeth that read “Help Me, Save Me.” The orthodontist’s search for the meaning of the words comes to no avail, and when Larry asks, “What happened to the goy?” the rabbi replies, “Is that relevant?” Larry is forced to confront a tradition as old as civilization which does little more than distract from, what for him, is a catastrophe proceeding in ignorance.
But even he might be missing the point. His jobless, cyst-ridden brother Arthur (Richard Kind), meanwhile, is crafting a probability map of the universe by way of esoteric pseudo-philosophy. Next door a beautiful, ganja-smoking, effectively single woman (Amy Landecker) seems his for the taking. Only his son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), manages to escape his father’s neurosis with the help of the sage-like Rabbi Marshak and Jefferson Airplane.
The film’s central flaw, if there is one to speak of, is the seriousness with which the Coens commit to all of these motifs. That’s not to say that this is a serious film—not in terms of tone, anyway—it strikes a tone as humorous as the funniest moments of the pair’s greatest films: “Barton Fink,” “Fargo,” and “The Big Lebowski.” But unlike any of those films, “A Serious Man” derives its substance from its ideas. Larry, and possibly his entire community, is ground down by the sheer weight of the realities of the human condition. We find his family and his associates fundamentally ridiculous, some even grotesque, and we find him pathetic—humorously so, but nevertheless. Larry never musters in the viewer so much as an iota of the sympathy or the fascination that Fink, Lebowski, or Marge Gunderson conjure so effortlessly. He is, in the end, merely an effigy; a Pilgrim sent on a journey into the metaphysical night.
—Staff writer Ryan J. Meehan can be reached at email@example.com.
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