A Serious Man is not a nice movie. Like both No Country for Old Men or Burn After Reading, it’s a film where the pieces don’t quite add up. You could compare it to Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, except the Coen Brothers are less interested in sifting through history than grappling with the eternal mysteries. Man depicts a kind of war against God, a war which is always going to be one-sided. As the protagonist Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) puts it at one point, why does God give man so many questions if He’s not going to provide any answers?
Larry is a milquetoast surprised to find himself in the center of circumstances that might turn into a movie. We’re somewhere outside Bloomington, Minn., sometime when Jefferson Airplane were on heavy rotation. Larry’s wife is leaving him for another man. His neighbor is slowly encroaching on his property. He lusts after the siren next door. His brother hogs the bathroom so that he can drain a cyst on his neck. Larry’s chances of tenure are endangered by poison pen letters accusing him of moral turpitude and a South Korean student is annoyed that his professor won’t adjust his failing grade after a few thousand dollars are left on the man’s desk.
Gopnik is introduced at his job, explaining Schrodinger’s paradox. Later, conferring with the student he’s failing, Larry explains how he uses fables “to help give you a picture, the math is how it really works,” a key to the film’s method. He confesses that even he sometimes doesn’t really understand the math. There are certainly a lot of fables in A Serious Man. The movie begins with an episode set in a shetl where a Jewish couple find themselves entertaining a dybbuk. The hero’s progress has a fable-like structure, as Larry goes from rabbi to rabbi, seeking some succor from his trials. Each offers a different lesson which doesn’t really apply to him but throws up another signpost to the viewer. Novice Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg) encourages Gopnik to find God in a parking lot—a somewhat futile suggestion that the audience look for meaning in the sharp angles and forbidding geometrics of this Minnesota suburb. The tea-sipping Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner)offers the ludicrous story of the goy’s teeth. Like many of the stories in A Serious Man, like A Serious Man itself, it’s an absurd parable whose meaning appears to be that there isn’t any.
This leaves Larry to comfort himself with equally empty aphorisms like “Actions always have consequences.” In a way, he is a Kafka-esque figure, a persecuted man unaware that he’s being persecuted for his inactivity. As he puts it, “Everything that I thought was one way turns out to be another.” He is powerless to prevent his fall. Soon Gopnik and his brother have been exiled to the Jolly Roger hotel.
The film also chips away at language as an acceptable recourse. The use of Yiddish in the film’s opening episode acts as a kind of alienating effect for gentile audiences. Larry’s son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is preparing for his bat mitzvah. The boy wrestling with Hebrew implies that the Old Country is as much another planet for him as for the audience. Indeed, he is introduced surreptitiously listening to “Someone to Love” instead of paying attention to his Hebrew School lesson.
Words frequently assume nonsensical meanings. On the school bus, Danny’s friends use obscenities to the point where their offensiveness is dulled. On top of his woes, Larry is being hounded by the Columbia Record Club, who insist he owes payment for a copy of “Santana’s Abraxas.” In the film’s funniest scene, the phrase is repeated until the syllables become unmoored from their referent. Even the word “serious” is suspect. It’s used as a term of appreciation for a dead man. Gopnik tries to apply it to himself. What it means to be A Serious Man—as opposed to a frivolous one–is never really defined, perhaps because the filmmakers assume that it can’t be.
Even the film’s paragons of seriousness, ranging from doctors to lawyers to rabbis, cannot be trusted. The officials of the temple are ineffectual blatherers. Larry Gopnik is in some ways a cousin to Barton Fink, who made the mistake of entering Hollywood’s absurd universe. The Coens acknowledge a link with their earlier film by casting Michael Lerner, Fink’s tyrannical studio boss Jack Lipnick, as a senior partner who drops dead during a consultation. (Bodies fall in A Serious Man like autumn leaves; in its way, the film is as violent as Old Men.)
Kafka surfaces again in the film’s concern with isolated body parts. Man’s credit sequence ends with the camera traveling through an ear canal to emerge through Danny’s earplug. (This possible homage to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet hints at A Serious Man as a satire of the U.S. suburban film genre as represented by Velvet and American Beauty, whose Lester Burnham deals with a more benevolent God.) The parable of the goy’s teeth turns into a motif when Danny, having successfully completed his bar mitzvah through a haze of marijuana, is invited into the chambers of the inaccessible Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell) and sees a diagram of a jaw among his clutter.
Danny also gets an eyeful of a picture of Abraham and Isaac. The myth chimes with A Serious Man’s depiction of man pitted against a willful God, although Danny mainly needs his dad around to fix the TV aerial. Gopnik, however, is outfoxed at every turn in his effort to make right with unseen forces. His dreams urge him to do the right thing, to perform an action—anything—which might have a consequence. When he finally does, however, by adjusting the Korean student’s grade, God (or the Coens as His surrogates) suddenly changes the terms and sics an apocalyptic tornado to blow Larry’s entire world away.
It’s been suggested that the Coens are paying a visit to autobiographical territory. If so, it’s clearly not a place they view with Proustian attachment, nights watching F Troop to the contrary. Their ‘60s are a time of drab polyester relieved only by the lurid boudoir of Gopnik’s neighbor, which may have been decorated by Dante. It’s also been suggested that Man is anti-Semitic. The Coens encourage a sense of corporeal disgust verging on appalled wonder, just dig that extreme close-up of the Hebrew School principal’s ear, crowned with a nimbus of wiry hair, or the procession of faces with more lines on them than a map of pre-war Europe. Even before the proper title, the credit sequence features of a host of unknown, but very Jewish, actor names flying at the screen—as if they had been unleashed from Pandora’s casting service. There’s also a joke in the final credits: “No Jews were harmed during the making of this picture.” This admits to the cruelty of A Serious Man. But when have the Coens not been cruel?
The largely unknown cast functions to further alienate the audience, who lack familiar faces to identify with. However, these are pretty magnificent faces. Standouts in the cast include George Wyner and Fred Melamed as Gopnik’s supercilious love rival. Cinematographer and longtime Coens collaborator Roger Deakins photographs a world where the only curves are represented by the characters’ out-of-shape bodies. It’s been dressed by production designer Jess Gonchor and art director Deborah Jensen. Carter Burwell’s piano-led score provides plenty of red herrings, turning the most innocuous moments into ones of utmost dread.
Tags: A Serious Man, Aaron Wolff, Alan Mandell, American Beauty, Barton Fink, Blue Velvet, Burn After Reading, Carter Burwell, Coen Brothers, Dante Aligheri, David Lynch, Deborah Jensen, F Troop, Franz Kafka, Fred Melamed, George Wyner, Jess Gonchor, Michael Haneke, Michael Lerner, Michael Stuhlbarg, No Country for Old Men, Roger Deakins, Simon Helberg, The White Ribbon