After 24 years and 14 movies, it would appear that the Coen Brothers have finally exposed themselves. Their world view was never exactly a secret, but in ‘A Serious Man’, all the loose strands seem to coalesce. After a career of confounding expectations, each new film introducing a radical shift, their latest film confounds those expectations. A direct response to their previous film, it contains elements of just about all the previous thirteen.
I am not simply a Coen Brothers fan, I don’t just love one or two of their films- the Coens are my favorite filmmakers working today. They are the only reasonably prolific filmmakers of whom I can say that I like every single one of their films. In fact, I love eleven of their first thirteen films, and think that the other two (‘The Ladykillers’ and ‘Burn after Reading’) are fascinating. ‘A Serious Man’, is their most personal film, a summation of their career to date. It should be one of my favorites…which is why I can’t really explain how frustrating it is that, at this early date, after only 1 viewing (at least 3 less than any of their other films, a dozen less than my favorites), I admire the film and am fascinated by it, but I don’t love it.
“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you” -Rashi
So says the title card preceding the strange and marvelous scene that opens this film- a Jewish folk tale, entirely in Yiddish. A couple of hundred years ago, in a small shtetl in Europe, a couple has a visitor. The husband is convinced the visitor is a kind old Jewish man. The wife is convinced it is a dybbuk, a body possessed by evil forces. Both seem to be reasonable in their theories. The visitor, played by Fyvush Finkel, assures the wife he is not a dybbuk. She is unconvinced, acts accordingly, and the story ends. Was he a dybbuk? We don’t know. (In the credits, Finkel is credited as ‘Dybbuk?’)
Fast forward to 1967. We arrive in a different Jewish community- the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor waiting to hear from the Tenure board. He’s got a wife, two kids and a brother who sleeps on the couch. He is a respected member of his congregation, which is almost entirely self-contained (there are about 5 goyim in the film). He is a small person leading a gray life. In his first scene, he receives some good news (he’s told he’s healthy after a physical). It is the last piece of good news he’ll receives for a long time. In the next few days, he finds out the following: His wife wants a divorce, his daughter is stealing money from him for a nose-job, his son is stealing from his daughter for pot, his brother gets in trouble with the police, he’s told by his wife and her lover that he should move out, his neighbor is annexing part of his lawn, a student is trying to bribe him, and someone is anonymously bad-mouthing him to the Tenure board. What has Larry done to deserve all these indignities? He goes to a series of Rabbis, none of which put his mind at ease. Things keep on getting worse. Finally, after all this suffering, he gets some good news…which is immediately followed by the worst news yet. The End.
What does it mean?!?
The misery on display is so all encompassing that it makes it a hard film to sit through. ‘Fargo’ had a paragon of goodness that shone amongst the greedy, selfish men. ‘Burn after Reading’ has a god-like figure that appears twice to indifferently mete out justice to its pathetic cast of characters. There isn’t anyone in this film to like. It’s an array of pathetic, selfish, gray people, leading small, unfulfilling, sad lives. Larry’s hardships may be biblical in their indignity, but he suffers through them passively, letting everyone walk all over him. Why? Because he’s a serious man. He believes in leading a serious life, doing the right thing, eviscerating the self in order to be appropriately placed in the whole. Doing what he thinks god, family, and community want of him. As long as he acts appropriately, he thinks he should be able to continue leading his serious and proper dull life. This is why he chooses physics- he wants to know how things work to be able to conform to them. Even though the physics theories he teaches –The Uncertainty Principle and Schrödinger’s Cat- are about the inability to know some things, he is comforted by the fact that the math proves that you can’t know.
His struggle comes to illustrate the Coens’ philosophical worldview. Often accused of being misanthropes who mock their characters, this film finally confirms the truth of the matter. They do mock many of their characters, because they have little care or patience for pettiness. All these money or power-hungry people- the Coens pile on indignities and violent reprisals as punishment. They admire those who lead good, simple, unpretentious lives, like Norville Barnes in ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’, Marge Gunderson in ‘Fargo’, the old lady in ‘The Ladykillers’. The trio of leads in ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ are granted a measure of peace once their quest for money is thwarted, ‘Intolerable Cruelty’ is about love triumphing over Prenuptial Agreements, and, of course, in ‘The Big Lebowski’ –their most joyous film- The Dude survives his involvement with various nefarious characters with the simple philosophy of bowling and “The Dude Abides”. Their most wonderful and least petty character is rewarded by their richest, funniest, and warmest film. They took this concept on more fully in ‘No Country for Old Men’, a sad look at the fact that punishment is meted out equally to good and bad people. It is their most morally serious film, questioning the value of morality in the face of inexplicable evil. It is despairing, but not out of misanthropy or temperamental nihilism. It’s about asking the question that Larry Gopnik asks, and getting the same answers. Out of that, came ‘Burn after Reading’, an angry film filled with nothing but pettiness and stupidity. As much as I would like to say that they are talking about certain people, I could not ignore the fact that they are really talking about me, about us. It’s their coldest film (by far), and hilarious as it may be, it showed them for the first time in their career actually being misanthropic. In ‘A Serious Man’ the Coens work through that, and move one step forward, ruminating on what one can do to cope with the realities shown in ‘No Country’ (with a more generous outlook than that big ‘up yours’ their previous film expressed).
Larry Gopnik refuses to see that it is not seriousness, but simplicity, kindness and modesty that are key to a fulfilling life, and he suffers for it. After his separation, he refuses to enter into an affair with a willing neighbor- it wouldn’t be appropriate. He refuses to accept the unknowability of god, and is haunted by it. A key scene in the film is with the second Rabbi he meets- Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner). The Rabbi tells Larry a story about a Jewish dentist that finds a Hebrew word written on the back of a gentile patient’s teeth. He obsesses over it, can’t find out the reason, goes to see the Rabbi, and finally gives up and goes on taking care of his patients and living his life. Larry, exasperated, asks “But what does it mean? What did you tell him?” In his response, the Rabbi sums up the film and the Coens’ philosophy: “The Teeth? We don’t know. A Sign from Hashem? We don’t know. Helping others? Couldn’t hurt”. More specifically to the question of god, the Rabbi says ‘Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way”. Larry’s problems are compounded for refusing to “Accept the mystery”, as he’s told at one point. The indignities he’s suffered and calamities to come would largely happen any way…but they’d be easier to cope with if Larry wasn’t so god-damn serious (perfectly underlined in a scene with the third, eldest and wisest (Orthodox) Rabbi, who quotes a different sage than one might expect).
Why don’t I love this film, despite its being so sympathetic to my own worldview? I’m not sure. Maybe further viewings will clarify that. Being stuck with these characters was not fun. It was painful. That is the point, but it’s still rewarding analytically rather than viscerally. It looks as brilliant as anything the Coens have done –shot by the peerless Roger Deakins, as usual. Michael Stuhlbarg is fantastic in an impossible role. In general, it is very well acted. And it ultimately does have the same kind of glimmer of optimism that ‘No Country for Old Men’ had- there is a potential for hope, though only if we can overcome our wretched instincts. Not much of a hope, obviously, but the specter of it saves the film from absolute morbidity. The Coens have obviously accepted the unknown, and have made a strangely peaceful film. The last two films were sad and angry; this one is resigned to the insanity of it all, and is content to make the most out of the situation humanity finds itself in. I guess that’s why this film had to be Jewish (and it is probably the most overtly Jewish mainstream film ever made), after a career with only minimal Jewish content. The resignation and the humor feel so right here –it would be hard to imagine another setting of this tale that could be as funny as this film often is.
I am struggling with this film. I would love to rationalize it into a masterpiece. But the disconnect between what it’s about and what it’s like to sit through is too big at the moment. I do look forward to wresting with it again. Not too soon, though- I may wait until the Coens next film, the predictably strange project of remaking the John Wayne western ‘True Grit’, which unless I’m mistaken will be a decided change of pace from the existential angst on full display in their last three films.