The pleasure of reviewing a Coen brothers movie is also the horror: so much to consider; where to begin? Of all of my pop-culture interests, Joel and Ethan Coen have managed to attain the greatest of heights by making accessible films (more or less) in terms of their national distribution while delivering what I call film as literature, films that warrant repeated viewing, layered with allusive content that offers viewers much to ponder and discover. While some have made academic careers reflecting on the Coen brothers’ work, I hope only to scratch the surface and offer a few different ways of reading and enjoying their most recent film, A Serious Man (2009).
The title may seem like a pedestrian way to begin discussing this film, yet as we ask what indeed is a serious man and who is the serious man in this story, we are already sucked into the fascinating complexities of the Coens’ shared genius. While they claim that this film is not autobiographical, A Serious Man is clearly their most personal film to date. The movie and their own childhood share the same setting and time period, a Jewish suburb of Minneapolis in the late 1960s. The Coens’ films always have explored the quirks and charms of various corners of America: O Brother Where Art Thou?—the deep South; Raising Arizona—the Southwest; Fargo—another take on a more recent portrait of Minnesota; The Big Lebowski—Los Angeles. In this sense they have served as our most populist regionalist documentarians, reminding us, refreshingly, that America is more vast and interesting than the nowhere-ville, stripmalled, chain-restauranted redundant version of America that most of us know all too well. Yet here in A Serious Man, we are led to wonder if perhaps their previous regional surveys have, more importantly, been an investigation into sections of America that are as particular and bizarre as the Coens’ own hometown. It is as if they have used their whole career to look through different family photo albums just to prove that, yes, it is true: we all have weird aunts and uncles. Yes, indeed, all our families are laughable and strange. With the lens turned inward instead of outward, they unflinchingly portray the Jewish community with the same biting wit as any of their other films, and they ask this question: who and what is a serious man? It is a question that cuts to the core of what it means to be a Bar Mitzvah.
(Alert: spoilers ahead.) At first we might assume the “serious man” is the main character, Larry Gopnik, a physics professor up for tenure, father of two teenagers, Sarah and Danny, married to Judith, who, as it turns out, has decided to leave Larry for a recent widower, Cy Abelman. Judith pressures Larry to agree to a get, a Jewish ritual divorce that will allow her and Cy to remarry within the faith. In a severe turn of events, Cy is killed in a car accident. It is at his funeral that we hear the first specific use of the phrase, “a serious man” to describe Cy. Rabbi Nachtner says of him, “Cy Ableman was a serious man. Cy Abelman was a man devoted to his community, to Torah study, to his beloved wife Esther, until three years ago she passed, and to his duty, as he saw it. Where does such a man go? A tzadik? Who knows? Maybe even a Lamed-Vovnik? A man beloved by all. A man who despised the frivolous. Could such a serious man simply… disappear? We speak of ‘olam ha-ba, the world to come.” For those of us not familiar with these terms, it is helpful to know that a tzadik is a completely sinless rabbi, and the Lamed-Vovnik is an especially righteous man, someone so righteous that he holds back the wrath of God from destroying the world; ‘olam ha-ba is the Jewish idea of the afterlife, the place all Bar or Bat Mitzvahs seek. A serious man, then, is a colloquial reference to a devout, respectable Jew.
Larry’s world, though, is falling apart in Job-like proportions. His simple, square suburban life—seemingly ideal—unravels at every seam. Not only is his marriage revealed to be a sham, but he is forced to vacate his house and live in the Jolly Roger, a local motel. His brother Arthur, ailing from a weeping sebaceous cyst, is first in trouble with the police for gambling and then later for solicitation of sodomy. At the university, Clive, an Asian student, is attempting to bribe him for a passing grade on an exam. Larry’s department chair informs him that someone has been writing slanderous letters urging the department not to grant him tenure. His daughter steals $20 bills out of his wallet to save up for plastic surgery to adjust the very Jewish bridge of her nose. His son is supposed to be preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, but is more likely to be smoking marijuana with his foul-mouthed friends. Larry wrecks his car, and Judith insists that he pay for Cy’s funeral, adding to the mounting legal fees for the divorce, his brother’s defense, and a property line dispute with his neighbor. Perhaps more grave is a question about Larry’s own health: early on we see Larry undergoing what might seem like a routine medical exam, but at the end of the film his doctor calls him back in to presumably give him some very bad news. Larry’s life is anything but respectable, serious.
Yet neither was Cy Ableman, a man who, it turns out, didn’t have the money to pay for his own funeral. We also find out Cy was the mysterious letter writer, plotting Larry’s demise both maritally and professionally. In fact, no one in the movie is a serious man. The Coens’ patent dark humor exaggerates each character into a caricature of themselves. Their vision of the late 1960s Minneapolis Jewish community is a dreamlike cartoon, a very dry, restrained carnival. It is as if they have inverted Camus’s The Stranger. Larry Gopnik’s existential journey is made all the more palpable, all the more visceral, because it seems as if he is the only sane person; everyone else has lost their minds.
A Serious Man offers, then, an exposition of the possibilities of hermeneutics. Who indeed is sane? It depends on perspective, on what viewers chose to interpret as true. The prologue to the film is an eight-minute short that reads like an aged rabbinic tale. A man coming home from selling geese at the market loses a wheel off his cart. A rabbi happens along and helps repair the cart, and the man invites him for some soup in thanks. The man arrives home to tell his wife of his good fortune in receiving the rabbi’s help, yet the wife is convinced that God has cursed them. She insists that said rabbi died three years prior. She concludes that this rabbi must instead be a dyybuk, a wandering, restless spirit and when the rabbi arrives at the home, the woman stabs him in the chest with an ice pick. So, who is insane here? If one believes it is possible for a restless spirit to inhabit a human body, then the husband is deluded; he has brought danger into the house. If one doesn’t believe spirits can do such things, then the wife is insane for murdering the rabbi. This little tale is the whole film in a nutshell. Who is a serious man? It depends on your interpretation.
Larry seeks counsel from three different rabbis. The counsel he receives from the first man, a junior rabbi, ironically haunts him the most. Rabbi Scott listens to Larry’s predicament and then launches into a monologue while looking out the window of his office: “The parking lot here. Not much to see. But if you imagine yourself a visitor, somebody who isn’t familiar with these autos and such, somebody still with the capacity for wonder. Someone with a fresh perspective. That’s what it is, Larry. Because with the right perspective, you can see Hashem, you know, reaching into the world. He is in the world, not just in shul. It sounds to me like you’re looking at the world, looking at your wife, through tired eyes. It sounds like she’s become a sort of thing... A problem. A thing.”
The Coen brothers are not depicting a cold, pragmatic hermeneutic. Larry’s existential crisis is personal, raw, and engrossing. Michael Stuhlbarg, an actor known mostly for his theater work, plays Larry Gopnik with stunning pathos. When he finally breaks down in tears in his lawyer’s office, it is a pitiable groan, one each of us no doubt have either made ourselves or heard from someone we love. His performance effectively reminds us that but for the grace of God we could be in his Job-like circumstances. When suffering rains down, as the old axiom goes, it too often pours. Larry, like the rest of us, wants to know why. Why do these things happen to us? What does God want to teach us? What does God want from us? In Larry’s session with the second rabbi, Rabbi Nachnter explains, “Sure, we all want the answer. Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.” For many, this kind of blunt appeal to the supreme Otherness of God—this mysteriousness, this required surrender of rational explanation—is a deal breaker. Larry’s final question to Rabbi Nachnter brings us to the center of his pain and, likewise, the center of the film: “Why does he make us feel the questions… if he’s not going to give us any answers?” Nachnter’s response—“He hasn’t told me”—keeps us restrained on the thin edge of faith.
Ironically, it’s Danny, Larry’s son, and not Larry, who meets with the third Rabbi, Rabbi Marshak. Larry had tried desperately to get an audience. He pleads with Marshak’s secretary, “I’ve had quite a bit of tsuris lately. Marital problems, professional, you name it. This is not a frivolous request. This is a... I’m a... I’ve tried to be a serious man, you know?” Marshak, however, is apparently busy. “He doesn’t look busy,” says Larry. “He’s thinking,” says the secretary. These days the elder Marshak only meets with Bar Mitzvahs, so after his ceremony Danny goes directly to Marshak’s office. He walks into the ominous room cluttered with relics of various sorts, trembling as he sits in front of this ancient man, the most serious of all. In this scene we go with Danny behind the curtain to see the grand wizard. Perhaps here, finally a word of consolation, a ray of light and hope might be pronounced from the mouth of Marshak? In a move only made believable by the comic prowess of the Coen brothers, Marshak quotes the opening lyrics from Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” as a question. Marshak’s voice is barely audible, almost a whisper. His recitation makes the words cryptic and sage. “When the truth... is found... to be lies... and all the hope... within you dies.... Then what?” This delightfully unexpected utterance further punctuates the question of perspective. How does one interpret life, suffering, meaning? How does one attain to a serious life? We return to the film’s epigraph, from the eleventh-century medieval French rabbi Rashi who encourages an optimistic, fresh view: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”
A Serious Man is not just the Coens’ most personal movie; it may be their most important. I say important, not best. We may disagree on which of their movies has the best characters, dialogue, and plot, but none of their movies so deftly grips the jugular of our existence. This judgment is no small thing when considering their weighty oeuvre. I fear that A Serious Man has been overlooked, hidden in the shadow of its Academy-Award-winning predecessor, No Country for Old Men. This film, though, is as ideologically dense and smart as it is well-crafted, as awkwardly painful as it is comical. Rent it. Watch it and discuss it and then watch it again.
Joshua Banner is Minister of Music and Art at Hope College. He is a contributor to the recently released For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (Baker Books).