Lost in the Movies: A Serious Man

A Serious Man

#67 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade. This review contains spoilers.

In his four-star review of A Serious Man, Roger Ebert writes, “I’m sure you’ve heard the old joke where Job asks the Lord why everything in his life is going wrong. Remember what the Lord replies? If you don’t remember the joke, ask anyone. I can’t prove it but I’m absolutely certain more than half of everyone on Earth has heard some version of that joke.” Well, no, I don’t remember what the Lord replies, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard some version of that joke (is that the joke?). However, Ebert’s withholding the punchline is very much in the spirit of the film he’s reviewing. This is a film that begins with a ghost (is it a ghost?) getting stabbed and ends with a tornado bearing down on a Hebrew school while the tinny sound of Jefferson Airplane reverberates from a transistor radio. In between, a woman kicks her husband out of the house and then makes him pay for her suddenly dead lover’s funeral; a boy tokes up before his Bar Mitzvah and receives a Grace Slick-inspired blessing from his 90-year-old rabbi; an uncle with cysts is charged with gambling and arrested for soliciting sodomy; an escape across the Canadian border is brought to a bloody halt by anti-Semitic hunters (don’t worry, it’s all a dream!); and a Jewish dentist discovers a hidden Hebrew script on the inside teeth of a gentile. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is trapped in the center of this eventually literal cyclone, and throughout the film he wears a dumbly neurotic, perpetually perplexed expression. He doesn’t understand what’s going, yet at times he seems to behave just as irrationally as the incidents befalling him, particularly with all the crap he takes from his shrewish wife. Everyone in the movie seems to be acting according to the dictates of some hidden humor – in both senses of the word; gee, I wish someone would let me in on the joke.

No doubt a good deal of the confusion stems from the film's Judaism/Jewishness. By separating the two terms I mean to suggest that the film employs both an engagement with the Jewish religion, and an employment of various tropes of secular Jewish culture; the latter will be somewhat familiar to outsiders (given their circulation in entertainment over the past century), while the former will remain largely mysterious. As a lapsed Catholic, descended from a mongrel mix of Poles, Frenchies, and Anglos, I'm on the outside looking in here. But then, is this particularly a function of the film's use of Jewish culture and mysticism? That may be the particular milieu, yet brothers and co-writers/directors Joel and Ethan Coen always come off as insular, fascinated by their own self-enclosed universes, which we are allowed to enter as long as we don't ask too many questions or get too miffed by their dark, often misanthropic sense of humor. At its best, as in The Big Lebowski, this formal control and idiosyncratic devotion rewards the initiated with an endlessly rich and hilarious world to explore. At its worst, as in the immensely cynical Burn After Reading one comes out feeling like the butt of an elaborate and mean-spirited practical joke.

A Serious Man, employing the rather conventional storyline of a suburban nebbish undergoing a comically overwrought midlife crisis, does not quite fall prey to the same lazy vices as the purposefully pointless Burn (a film which ended with one character turning to another and saying something to the effect of, "Well, that was pointless. Let's never do that again."). I use "lazy" advisedly - the Coen Brothers are stone-cold masters of cinematic form; I once wrote that they could adapt the yellow pages and give it at least the appearance of art. Yet they stubbornly coast on their mastery from time to time, allowing it to give a polished sheen to trite characterizations, cheap cynicism, and narrative randomness. It is not a question of form being held hostage to content, by the way; I still maintain that a truly bold and transporting style can make a great film from limited or even offensive material, and that a masterpiece is defined less by what it's about than how it's about it. But this sort of transformation can only occur with a style that's open to the outside world, that is ambiguous enough to explore beyond the horizon of the text. This is not the sort of approach the Coens employ, and so they remain bound by their material.

Which brings us back to A Serious Man. The movie has the feel of an inside joke, which is irritating if you don't "get" it, yet there are enough resonant, intriguing touches for one to suspect it's not merely a put-on. There's the shot of Larry standing atop his roof, where he's climbed to fixes the TV antenna (broken connection to those signals from the sky - be they televisual or Yahwist). He pauses to takes in the suburban landscape around him, much like Moses surveying the Promised Land - in both cases the observer is excluded from ever entering. Or the enticing clutter of the ancient Rabbi Marhak's imposing den, where the recently Bar Mitzhvahed (and occasionally stoned) must pass looming portraits of Isaac's near-sacrifice and jars of what appear to be giant bugs floating in formaldehyde. Or the outlandishly vast blackboard surrounding Professor Larry in a looming lecture hall, covered impressively with endless equations meant to convey the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (how does he write up that high? - answer: another dream).

At its strongest, A Serious Man hints at a fascinating world offscreen, a rich panoply of ever-deeper mystery and textural richness. The characters dip a toe into this world of milk and honey (or, in this case, pot and incense) but somehow we're always distanced from its revelations, and they - particularly Larry - are eternally befuddled by what they're missing, or the question of if they're really missing anything at all. The film is structured around Larry's visits to the helpless rabbis, culminating in the denial of his request to see Marhak. Lawyers, doctors, relatives, and fellow teachers along the way provide sounding boards for his confusion, but offer little in the way of insight. There's enough going on, and the Coens' touches are just barely evocative enough, to convince us that the hero's (ha!) dry, secular neurosis is not all there is, but it's uncertain to what extent the withholding of a greater experience is down to dramatic necessity or an inability of the film and filmmakers to actually take that leap of faith (given that the Coens, of course, created this particular necessity, perhaps a bit of both).

Less commendable than A Serious Man's suggestive touches is the Coens' reliance on increasingly predictable and dissatisfying bouts of violence as well as deadpan cliched characterizations (the maddening Korean student, sometimes amusing but all in all a rather easy and obvious device; the humorously uber-goy yet again rather glibly-drawn neighbors). At one point, when Larry sends his brother off in a canoe, it's enjoyably wry yet also quietly touching in its wacky way. Watching this, and knowing the directors' instincts, we ask ourselves - is the brother about to get his head blown off? Yep, he is. Later on, an old man - for no apparent reason - drops dead in a law office. We've been here before, numerous times, and what may have once been shocking in the Coens' cinema is now tiresomely rote. One chuckles, but kind of resents the brothers for their employment of "subversive" devices which, rather than subvert, give them a "see-we're-just-kidding" escape hatch every time.

Anyway, cheap shots and deadpan remove aside, A Serious Man remains compelling enough to warrant repeat viewings. This is where I get off; I've only seen the film once, and like Larry Gopnik barred from the rabbi's door, I'll have to come back later to glean more secrets, if indeed they amount to anything more rewarding than "When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies..." followed by the incantations of the "Airplane"'s names. I don't know if they will, but then what do I know? Not even the punchline to the joke apparently...

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Read the comments on Wonders in the Dark, where this review was originally published.

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