Joel and Ethan Coen, the fraternal existential pranksters of filmdom, are experts at making us laugh, making us think, and making us think about whether we’re supposed to be laughing or thinking. Their latest, “A Serious Man,” does all of that, and some elements of it are liable to produce puzzlement. Yet the Coens have outdone themselves this time. There are details within “A Serious Man” that help us interpret not just this film but some of the brothers’ other inscrutable works, too. It might even summarize everything they’ve ever done.
Set in the Coens’ native Minneapolis in the 1967 of their youth, it offers such sublime Coenic delights as offbeat one-scene characters, befuddled yokels, repetition of dialogue (“Be out in a minute!”), unexpected plot devices, and a shrewd eye for visual composition. It also includes allusions to Old Testament figures Job and David and is deeply, deeply Jewish. It’s a dark comedy, I think, or maybe a drama with some darkly funny moments. I’ve seen it twice. One audience laughed a lot more than the other one did. I don’t know which one I agree with.
That’s OK, though, because uncertainty plays a significant role in the movie. Our protagonist is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a small college who is the epitome of the hapless, put-upon, bespectacled nebbish. His pants are too short, his manner is neurotic, he is cowed by his overbearing wife and treated as inconsequential by his teenage children. But he is a good man who provides for his family and always tries to do what is morally right.
And what does Larry get for his troubles? Nothing but grief, that’s what. His wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), wants to leave him for his co-worker and friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). One of his students (David Kang) has attempted to bribe him for a passing grade. He’s uncertain whether he’ll be granted tenure at the college. His Gentile next-door neighbor (Peter Breitmayer) seems to be slowly encroaching on the Gopniks’ property, the sort of thing that historically has made Jews a little nervous. Larry’s brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), unhealthy and maybe unstable, is living with the family indefinitely. An unspoken “oy vey” hangs over every aspect of Larry’s life.
What Larry wants to know is this: Why? Why are his wife and Sy and the failing student and everyone else so unreasonable? He is perplexed by all the persecution. What has he done to make God send him such trials? He seeks advice from rabbis and gets little help, though you might find what they say both amusing and, in the context of the film, enlightening.
As Larry’s life slowly falls apart, his son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), is supposed to be preparing for his bar mitzvah. Mainly he smokes pot with his buddies and attempts to retrieve the transistor radio that was confiscated during Hebrew school. And what does Danny’s story have to do with his father’s? A fine question! We meet them both at the same time, with the Coens cutting back and forth between Larry getting a physical exam at a doctor’s office and Danny surreptitiously listening to Jefferson Airplane in class. Does this parallel editing mean the two Gopniks are connected thematically? Later, a frantic Larry observes that at the very moment he was in a minor car accident, someone he knows died in a major one across town. A coincidence — but does it mean something? Is God trying to tell him that he and the other person are somehow alike? What is God trying to tell him?
You could just as well ask what the Coens are trying to tell us. After all, if a movie is a made-up world, then the directors are the gods of it. These particular Minnesotan deities are well-known for resisting their worshipers’ pleas for enlightenment, preferring to reward the faithful with treasures of understanding that the less observant miss. And sometimes they’re just messin’ around with you. Sometimes the answer is that there isn’t an answer. Which is the same answer Larry Gopnik gets, when someone tells him, “Accept the mystery.” Since this is the Coen brothers, naturally the “answer” to the film would come from a minor character in a throwaway line in reference to something else, and of course Larry doesn’t get it.
The Coens’ worldview — or at least the one conveyed in this and some of their other films — is that no matter what you do, stuff happens. It’s not always fair or logical or appropriate. Life is messy and unpredictable. As someone in “No Country for Old Men” told us, “You can’t stop what’s comin’. It ain’t all waitin’ on you. That’s vanity.” The first words in “A Serious Man” are a quote from the medieval French rabbi Rashi: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” Just accept it, man.
You could drive yourself crazy trying to figure things out. Take the film’s prologue, for example, set in a European Jewish village 100 years ago. A husband and wife have opposite views of the same person, an old man who stops at their cottage and who might be either a harmless old man or a demon. Who is right? He’s like Schrodinger’s cat, for all intents and purposes alive and dead at the same time because we don’t know for sure either way. Larry Gopnik knows about Schrodinger. He knows about the uncertainty principle, too. He ought to apply his understanding of physics to daily life.
The only way to truly solve life’s problems, the film suggests, is to stop thinking about them. By forgetting that the mysteries even exist (and drugs, like Danny’s marijuana, can help change your perspective there), you relieve yourself from worrying about them. Once you no longer have problems to worry about, you’re happy. You can’t ever really solve the mysteries of life anyway, so why bother with them? Whatever is going to happen is going to happen.
I don’t subscribe to that philosophy myself, and who knows if the Coens even really do. But what an engrossing and thoughtful tale they tell in the service of it! Michael Stuhlbarg, a largely unknown actor (like most of the cast), gives a powerhouse performance as Larry, a man who gets beaten down but maintains an inner reserve of strength and dignity. He is never pathetic or pitiful. That’s important. I also love Fred Melamed as the velvet-voiced Sy Ableman, and Richard Kind (probably the most famous person in the film) as Larry’s sad, sad brother.
The film is a wonder: At every turn there’s an offbeat character or an unexpected development waiting to surprise you. It’s all about the uncertainty of life, yet the film itself is very certain, carefully crafted, impeccably written and acted. The first time you watch it, you enjoy the unpredictable ride you’re on. The second time, you contemplate how all the pieces fit together. I’m eager to see what happens the third time.
A (1 hr., 45 min.; )