[11 December 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Parables are supposed to explain the world, not make it more complicated. We are supposed to gain insight and wisdom from religious allegory, not reel with confusion while suffering from heartburn and headaches. Yet this is the world created by Joel and Ethan Coen, the amazing American auteurs who continue to aspire to greatness while typically achieving same. Focusing on a Jewish college professor and his troubled life in the late ‘60s, what we wind up with is A Serious Man, one long, masterful, misguided rabbinical fable as fairytale. When it comes to turning any subject - writing, parenthood, greed - into something both formidable and frightening, hilarious and hackneyed, no one does it better than the Coens. And with faith as their focus this time around, they deliver once again.
Larry Gopnik teaches physics at a small college. He is up for tenure and believes he deserves it. When an Asian student complains about a failing grade, the confrontation begins a surreal snowball of personal catastrophes for the mild mannered teacher. First, his wife leaves him for another man. Then, his useless brother is arrested for various crimes. Even worse, the Columbia Record Club keeps calling him, demanding payment. Hoping to gain some insight into his growing troubles, Larry seeks guidance from the local synagogues. Sadly, each rabbi is more perplexing than the next. With his son about to be bar mitzvahed and his interpersonal life falling apart, our hero hopes that God will show him the way. What the Lord has to offer, though, may be much, much worse.
With a minor hitch between 2003 and 2006 (let’s face it, Intolerable Cruelty and Ladykillers aren’t really worth mentioning now, are they?) the Coen Brothers have been the most consistently arresting and entertaining filmmakers of the last 25 years. Ever since Blood Simple in 1984, they’ve continued to redefine the artform while staying wholly reverent to the medium’s mandates. They are superb storytellers, create clever and endearing characters, and use individual panache and stellar filmmaking flair to turn simple celluloid into radiant works of art. They have made some of, what are arguably, the greatest films of all time (Barton Fink, Raising Arizona, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and Miller’s Crossing among them) and have a consistency which, slight stumble at the beginning of the millennium aside, defies explanation.
And now we have their latest masterwork, A Serious Man. Imagine a saucy, raunchy Joe Sarno suburban sex drama without the faux fornication or sleaze, a post-modern meditation on sour suburban belief retrofitted into one man’s descent into a personal Hell. Like a symbolic game of misery one-upmanship, the Coens create a classic nebbish in Larry Gopnik (expertly played by stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg), give him an equally iconic family (stoner son, adulterous wife, loser relative, rebellious daughter) and then unleashes the worst of real life upon him. He’s like Job without the Biblical significance. With the Jefferson Airplane continuously playing in the background (not just as a point of nostalgia, but with real meaning to the narrative) and the constant reference to Judaism and dogma, the brothers take their own Hebrew teachings, skew them, and turn the clichéd self-loathing Jew into something spellbinding.
At its core, A Serious Man is about perspective. It’s also about peace - of mind, of spirit, of self. It’s about coming to terms with your place in the world, and recognizing that you may never get the answers you seek. For Larry, religion is both a benefit and a burden. When troubled, he is told to turn to church elders. When they come up short, he is suddenly adrift. The parallel between the rabbi visits and the entire movie itself is stunning. We being with the tale set in “the old country”, a dybbuk visiting grief on an unsuspecting husband and his suspicious wife. Another scene tells a story of miraculous teeth.
Both are as meaningless and yet faux figurative as everything in the Coens’ film itself. When Larry asks for an explanation, all he gets is a troubled, almost dismissive look. The movie functions in the same way. We are supposed to learn from what the filmmakers fail to show us - the raging counterculture, the war in Vietnam, the sexual revolution, the change in the media - more than the trials and tribulations of a college instructor.
There is also a sly nod to Anti-Semitism present, to the unending persecution of a people based solely on their religious beliefs. Larry lives next door to a man who expresses his racism in subtle, stinging ways (like mowing part of the Gopnik’s grass or ignoring obvious property lines and deed restrictions), while the college treats him with telling kid gloves. For the Coens, Jewishness is a combination of the mystical and the manic, tradition trumped by the misinterpretation and misapplication of same. All throughout A Serious Man, the notion of God and His plan is batted about like a conversation over cocktails, never given the seriousness it seems to demand, always abided by even when it seems illogical and unappealing.
That’s the great thing about the Coen Brothers - they never make things easy. A Serious Man is complex and intricate, requiring an attention span longer than your typical ADD addled viewer can offer. Multiple viewings also bring out the inherent majesty in their work, a tendency toward hiding their heroism in the smallest of indirect details. With cinematography that screams the ‘60s without showing us any of the fake flower power precedents of the era and a truly memorable musical score, this film is fantastic. From the fashion to the flat look of the suburban sprawl, Larry Gopnik’s world is the real rebellion, as far away from the mainstream as the Establishment fears it is.
In fact, the same can be said for the Coens themselves. While their movies are steeped in the traditions of old world Hollywood, and they love to play with the conventions of film, the truth is, they remain mavericks in a universe of commercial conformists. Even with all their Oscars and acknowledgments, the Coen Brothers are true idiosyncratic originals. One look at A Serious Man and you’ll instantly understand why.