The Coen Brothers have put the sad back in sadism. Beginning with their first feature, Blood Simple (1984), the two jolly misanthropes have taken delight in submitting their creations to ingenious, hilarious, and unavoidable sufferings and torment. Their attitude has been Olympian, at best. With their astounding, infuriating, and profoundly comic A SeriousMan, however, they are taking the human condition a little more seriously. In this film — for the first time, perhaps (possible exception: Barton Fink) — they suggest that they, too, might be butts of the cosmic joke of life.
|A Serious Man | Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen | with Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, and Adam Arkin | Focus Features | 105 minutes
Their gentle, stoic protagonist, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, who resembles a younger Eugene Levy), could well be standing in for his creators. Like them, he's an intellectual (a physics professor) and a native of a "Jewish community in an unnamed Midwestern suburb." His pain is intimate and solipsistic and perhaps self-inflicted. Unlike the blunt ordeals endured by the goys in Fargo and No Country for Old Men, his Kafka-esque nightmare evokes the metaphysical Rube Goldberg device of Charley Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York. And whereas the brothers' previous films veer toward Greek tragedy, this time it's Biblical. Near the end of the movie, the camera passes over a picture of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. More to the point, maybe, would be one of God testing Job.
A Serious Man begins, after a gnomic prologue, with what might be the inverse of the beginning of David Lynch's Blue Velvet. The camera passes through the auditory canal of Larry's teenage son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), into an earpiece, along a wire, and through a radio playing Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody To Love" (it's 1967) before exiting into a droning Hebrew class. Meanwhile, somewhere else in this pastel-bungalowed suburb, Danny's father exclaims to his comatose physics class, "Here's the exciting part!", as he scrawls out the mathematics behind the mystery of whether Schrödinger's cat is dead or alive.
Such uncertainty reigns in Larry's life, and it really bugs him, even more than the dependable verities of injustice, treachery, pettiness, guilt, and anxiety imposed on him by family members, friends, neighbors, people at work, and the incomprehensible will of Hashem. His wife (Sari Lennick) is cheating on him, he's up for tenure, his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is draining a cyst, the Columbia Record Club is dunning him. At times, the film is as much a Jobean ordeal for the viewer as it is for Larry. We get it, the man is a schlemazel — must Danny call him on the phone while he's weeping in the office of his lawyer (Adam Arkin) to complain that the reception for F Troop is still fuzzy?
But every time the black humor and the caricatures become overbearing, the Coens take off on an inexplicable, mind-blowing, brutally funny tangent. Like the rabbi's story about Sussman and the goy's teeth. Or the ending. Or, for that matter, that prologue. It's a shtetl-set folk tale reminiscent of the Yiddish cinema of the 1930s that involves a dybbuk and an unsurprisingly ambiguous ending. What does it mean? As Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner) says, does it matter? Hashem might have the last laugh on us all, but until that happens, the Coen Brothers are in on the joke.