Criticwire’s New Classic series examines films released in the last ten years that are posed to stand the test of time.
“A Serious Man”
Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen
Criticwire Average: B+
The Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man” opens with a short Yiddish folk tale about a Jewish man (Allen Lewis Rickman) living in an Eastern European shtetl who returns home to his wife (Yelena Shmulenson) to tell her that he has invited over a Reb Groshkover (Fyvush Finkel) for soup. When the wife tells her husband that Groshkover died three years earlier, she assumes that the man he invited over is a dybbuk, an evil, malevolent spirit that has possessed the body of a living person. When “Groshkover” enters their home, the wife quickly stabs him with an icepick, and though he doesn’t initially seem to have a wound, he begins to bleed just before he exits into a snowy night. The husband believe that he and his wife are ruined because they will be charged with murder; on the other hand, the wife believes they have rid their house of evil.
Though this short prologue may not appear on the surface to have a strong connection with the rest of “A Serious Man,” it succinctly introduces the main idea that will hang over the rest of the film: life is filled with cruel, absurd uncertainties, and trying to understand why or how this is will only drive a person to madness and ruin. It would be easy, and ultimately foolish, to craft a “serious” drama out of this idea, but only the Coens would take it and conceive a brilliant pitch-black comedy. The film follows Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor living in a Minnesota suburb in the late-60’s, as his life slowly unravels. His wife (Sari Lennick) asks him for a get, a ritual divorce, so she can marry the deep-voiced, subtly conniving widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and requests he moves out of the house; he’s up for tenure, but his department head (Ari Hoptman) keeps receiving anonymous letters denigrating his character; a Korean student (David Kang) is blackmailing him for a passing grade; and his troubled brother Arthur (Richard Kind) lives with him while he fills a notebook with the Mentaculus, “a probability map for the universe.” Throughout the film, Larry seeks spiritual guidance from rabbis, lawyers, and friends, wanting answers as to why disaster has befallen him, yet all he receives are more questions in return.
On paper, “A Serious Man” sounds like a dour exercise in a mild form of sadism, but in execution it’s a deeply absurdist comedy in the vein of Kafka, a writer whose stories derived their humor from the frustration of living with persistent existential discomfort. The main joke involves a) watching Larry toil in anguish as he tries to understand why an indifferent universe keeps burdening him with problems, and b) Larry’s inability to comprehend the universe’s indifference. He valiantly tries to suss out an answer or an explanation for his troubles, but comes up short every time, partially because he keeps trying to understand. When he seeks out the advice of Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner), he tells Larry the story of the Goy’s Teeth, a rambling parable involving a curious man trying to answer an unanswerable question where the moral seems to be to ignore those kind of questions entirely. “We can’t know everything,” the rabbi calmly tells him. “It sounds like you don’t know anything!” Larry frustratedly cries. The comedy and tragedy of “A Serious Man” resides in that exasperation.
Furthermore, the Coens place the audience in Larry’s shoes by filling “A Serious Man” with little bits of uncertainty that could mean everything or nothing if they were ever easily digestible: Was Groshkover a dybbuk or an honest man? Is The Mentaculus a work of genius or the ramblings of a lunatic? Is Schrodinger’s cat dead or alive? As Larry explains to his class, all the Uncertainty Principle proves is that “we can’t ever really know what’s going on,” and much like other Coen films that are filled with symbolism that could lead to dead ends, trying to boil down “A Serious Man” to a simple thesis statement is futile and ill-advised. Nevertheless, the Coens construct “A Serious Man” as its own unique parable, a simple story ostensibly with an instructive lesson, but if there’s a lesson in “A Serious Man,” it’s that the world is devoid of lessons entirely, and that the only thing we can try to do is to follow the senior Rabbi Marshak’s instruction to Larry’s pot-smoking, Jefferson Airplane-listening son (Aaron Wolff): “Be a good boy.”
“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you,” says Rashi, a quote that opens the film, a message that Larry tries to take to heart but ultimately fails to heed, but who can blame him? After being put through the ringer by his family, his job, and his religion, it’s hard to receive the life’s daily tortures simply, let alone at all. Many critics argue the Coens take cruel pleasure in watching Larry flounder in despair, but if anything, the pleasure comes from recognition at the daily absurdities that fill our lives. Larry gets into a car accident and then later receives a maddening call from the Columbia record club asking him for money. Larry goes to smoke pot with his neighbor and soon after finds out his brother is being charged with solicitation and sodomy. Larry makes a small immoral choice — passing Clive and taking his bribe to pay down his debt — and immediately after receives a troubling call from his doctor about his health. Why does this happen? Why does the world constantly fuck with us? Why is there a tornado baring down on Danny’s school as he continues to drown out the world with his radio? Please. Accept the mystery.