And all the joy within you dies
Don’t you want somebody to love?
– Jefferson Airplane, ‘Somebody to Love’
So goes the song at the center of A Serious Man, the extraordinary new film by The Coen Brothers, and those lyrics sum up the plight of main character Larry Gopnik quite nicely. Gopnik is a physics professor, a few weeks short of tenure, whose life begins falling apart around him through no fault of his own. A Serious Man traces his attempt to find a way out of the darkness. Anybody familiar with The Coen Brothers’ filmography can guess how that goes.
It’s always been my experience that Coen Brothers films, more than those of any other filmmaker, require multiple viewings before they can be truly appreciated. This film is no exception, though my head is already filled with analysis of its many nuances. I can’t wait to see it again knowing where it’s headed so I can better appreciate the precise turns it takes in getting there.
The Coen film it most reminds me of is Barton Fink, another black comedy about a Jew at the end of his rope. The main difference is that Barton was a man completely removed from his comfort zone and dropped into a living hell in Hollywood, while Larry Gopnik has that living hell delivered unto him at his own home (as well as the Jolly Roger motel). Gopnik is a Job-like character, and indeed the whole film seems inspired by the Book of Job, though things probably turned out better for Job — I don’t think he ever had to suffer through a phone call with the Columbia Record Club.
This has been called the Coens’ most personal film — it’s set in the predominantly Jewish suburbs of Minneapolis in the late 60s, the time and place matching the Coens’ own childhood. Perhaps this intimate connection is what lends A Serious Man an emotional weight not always present in their films. Fourteen movies into their extraordinary career, the Coens have delivered one of their very best works, a feat that hardly seems possible given the quality of what’s come before it. In fact, this film broadens and deepens the impact of everything else they’ve done.
I read one review that called A Serious Man the Rosetta Stone that unlocks the mysteries of the Coens’ filmography. And indeed, the worldview explored in this movie is consistent with their previous work. Their world is an unkind place guided by a god that is either absent or indifferent. Forces of darkness are embodied in cruel men — such memorable characters as No Country for Old Men‘s Anton Chigurh, Raising Arizona‘s Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, Miller’s Crossing‘s Eddie Dane, Barton Fink‘s Charlie Meadows, Fargo‘s Gaear Grimsrud and Blood Simple‘s Loren Visser. In A Serious Man, the cruel hand guiding events is none other than Hashem Himself, the Jewish God.
The injustices visited upon Gopnik include a Korean student intent on either bribing him or suing him for defamation for mentioning the bribe; a wife who wants to leave him for a man named Sy Ableman; a daughter who steals money from his wallet to save up for a nose job; a son weeks away from his bar mitzvah who spends his time getting high and complaining about the TV reception; a neighbor who is encroaching on his property line with the intent to build a boat shed; a tenure board that’s concerned about the anonymous letters they’re receiving questioning his moral fiber; and… I could go on but I won’t.
Through all of this, Gopnik tries his hardest to be a serious man. Following friends’ advice, he seeks aid from a series of rabbis, each less helpful than the next. The junior rabbi, a dopey fellow with a smile plastered on his face, advises him to look at things in a new way… like the parking lot, for example. Another rabbi tells him the fascinating tale of The Goy’s Teeth, a sequence that will go down as one of the finest the Coens have ever put on film. While the passage works splendidly as a joke, it also contains the film’s central nihilistic message.
Just about everything in this film works as both dark comedy and meaty symbolism. An opening sequence, an apparent fable depicting a Jewish couple welcoming what might be a dybbuk (or ghost) into their home, is seemingly unrelated to the broader story. But compare that scene to Gopnik’s lesson on Schrödinger’s cat at the beginning of the film… a creature that, mathematics would have it, is both dead and alive. The film suggests that actions have consequences (including Gopnik’s one truly immoral act at the end of the movie) yet his total inaction is what gets him into hot water with the Columbia Record club. Everything in this film cuts both ways. And it cuts deep.
I could analyze this film for hours, and I’m sure I’ll do just that as I mull it over in my head and eventually see it again (and again). But I’ll leave further exploration of the film to the comment section after a few more quick points.
First, the ensemble cast of this film deserves a slew of awards, as does the casting team that assembled it. This is the first Coen Brothers film that doesn’t utilize a single one of their regular players. There is no Buscemi or Goodman here, no Turturro, Jenkins or Shalhoub. There’s certainly no Clooney. And there isn’t even a McDormand!
Instead, we get an ensemble cast that feels as if they were born into these roles. Stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg is flawless as Larry Gopnik; Fred Melamed redefines smarm as Sy Ableman; Alan Mandell, Simon Helberg and George Wyner steal their scenes as the three rabbis; Sari Lennick is hilariously heartless as Larry’s wife; and special mention must be made of Aaron Wolff, as Larry’s son… the burden of this film rests on his shoulders almost as much as Stuhlbarg’s.
Second, there is a short scene toward the end of A Serious Man that is the most poignant, emotionally raw thing the Coens have ever put on film. It’s an encounter by an empty motel pool that in any other film probably wouldn’t stand out very much. But the Coens, so studied and cerebral in even their most madcap films, have never before gone to a place like this. They even play with that fact a little bit, having a character wake up from a dream shortly after the encounter and ask if it really happened. It did… and it makes me wonder if it might signal a new direction in their films yet to come.
Finally, I must comment on the ending, though I’ll do so without giving anything away. Thinking about it afterward, it occurred to me that the Coens are better at ending films than pretty much any other filmmakers working today. The note-perfect conclusions of Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing come to mind, as well as the lovely, human moment that closes out Fargo.
The visually and aurally arresting scene that ends A Serious Man recalls the finish of their Oscar-winning No Country of Old Men… maddening, challenging, perfect. In the final tumultuous moment, the film embraces all of it’s contradictions — you have no idea what’s going to happen next, but you know exactly what’s going to happen next.