Along with the usual disclaimers in the end credits of “A Serious Man” comes this message: “No Jews were harmed in the making of this film.” The writing-directing superteam of Joel and Ethan Coen has finally embraced its most Jewish of last names, and in so doing has crafted one of the most original, unexpected and thought-provoking films of the year. But take that disclaimer seriously: From a faith-based perspective, there is some serious harm being wrought upon some serious Jews.
‘A Serious Man’
At the Michigan
The Coen brothers uprooted an ages-old biblical parable and transplanted it to rural Minnesota circa 1967, making a film that is both surreal and reflective of their own childhoods. The movie revels in the misfortune of its protagonist, Larry Gopnik (theater veteran Michael Stuhlbarg), and invites the audience into his downward spiral. And yet “Serious Man” maintains a delicate tone throughout, never veering into overly sadistic or condescending territory.
Larry is by all accounts a good Jew. He sends his kids to Hebrew school and always looks out for his fellow man, even taking in his downtrodden brother Arthur (Richard Kind, TV’s “Spin City”). But Larry’s life starts to unravel, first gradually, then uncontrollably. His wife wants a divorce so she can marry her new lover, a beloved community figure. Larry’s request for tenure at the community college where he teaches is threatened by an anonymous dissenter. He’s kicked out of his own house and becomes strapped for cash. And one of his students attempts to bribe him for a passing grade, then threatens to sue for defamation. Through it all, Larry maintains with wide-eyed disbelief that he hasn’t done anything.
Fatalism has always been a common theme for the Coen brothers — many of their protagonists, from The Dude in “The Big Lebowski” to Sheriff Bell in “No Country for Old Men,” are bounced powerlessly through events outside their control. But Larry may be their first character who looks beyond the immediate consequences of the events themselves and tries to ask what they all mean. He’s looking for answers in his life when there don’t seem to be any.
Larry visits three different rabbis in his quest to find meaning in his misery, and they give him advice of about the same level of usefulness as Jefferson Airplane lyrics. One of the biggest cosmic jokes in the movie is an image that will be very familiar to some Jews: the exalted senior rabbi, sitting alone in his ridiculously ornate palace of an office adorned with assorted Judaica, doing nothing and speaking to nobody. “The rabbi is busy … he’s thinking,” says his assistant.
There’s never a dull frame in a Coen brothers picture. With the help of cinematographer Roger Deakins, their long-time collaborator, they can make even the most rudimentary images pop with a kind of ethereal resonance. The simple sequence of Larry climbing up on his roof to fiddle with his TV antennae carries resounding power: The camera admires him from below and above, and for a brief moment he appears to be content as the ruler of his household kingdom. As Larry’s misfortunes pile up, we become more and more vested in his plight; the Coen’s brilliant characterization of him through shot frames and the smartly focused script help give him the kingly grandeur he constantly seeks. Under any lesser filmmaker, Larry would have simply become a sad sack, and the film would have been unbearable to sit through.
But what does it all mean? On its surface “A Serious Man” is simply a retelling of the story of Job, in which God and Satan make a bargain over how much they can push a good, pious man before he renounces his faith. Yet there seems to be more going on here than mere Biblical allegory. As per usual, the Coens aren’t interested in spelling anything out: without giving anything away, the ending doesn’t make deciphering the rest of the film any easier. But unlike their misjudged anticlimax that concluded “No Country,” this ending feels more complete, somehow.
In a movie where one man is being punished without rhyme or reason, no one singular image is going to wrap things up nice and pretty. Instead, what is here further cements the Coen’s status as legends of the screen, and guarantees that “A Serious Man” will be seriously talked about for years to come.