A Serious Man
Listen, I love a Jewish story as much as anyone, if not more so, and I even loved Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer — only kidding; it was horrible! — but this? I am just not sure. Or, to put it another way, if I have one serious problem with the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, it is: just how seriously are we meant to take it? If it is meant to be significantly illuminating, in what way are we significantly illuminated? And, if it isn’t, then what are we being invited to laugh at? Jews? Judaism? Faith in general? Fat ladies? Family? Life in the ’burbs? Again? Honestly, I do wish film-makers would get over sneering at the suburbs. We can’t all live just off Wardour Street. Still, what do I know? I’m not much of a serious person myself. I am hardly Proust...only kidding! I’ve been compared to Proust many times.
The film opens with a Yiddish-language prologue set in a shtetl a century ago in Eastern Europe, in which a couple open their door to a bearded old man who may or may not be a dybbuk (a demonic spirit). Quite what this parable has to do with the rest of the film is never clear, although it may just be that: that nothing is ever clear. Next thing you know, we are in the American Midwest in the 1960s, with Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor whose life is beginning to fall apart. A Korean student (David Kang) seems set on destroying him. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) tells him she is in love with their widowed friend, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), whom she describes as ‘a more serious man’, even though he wears a head-to-toe baby-blue ensemble to play golf. Larry’s son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), is more interested in pot than in his Bar Mitzvah studies. His daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus), is stealing money for a nose job. Larry’s far older brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), is homeless, sleeps on the couch, does weird things that bring in the police, and has a neck abscess that requires constant draining. Eventually, Larry even has to move out of his suburban home into a seedy motel. You can tell his home is a suburban home because there are lawn disputes between neighbours and everyone slurps their soup.
As Larry is stripped of everything, in a Job-like way, he starts seeking answers. Unlike Job, he doesn’t assume he has sinned and deserves punishment. He has, as he says, ‘always tried to do right’ and is mystified. He is upright, blameless, decent, and now look what’s happened: he’s trapped in A Downward Trajectory Movie. He consults three rabbis, all of whom are no help whatsoever; all of whom say nothing that isn’t empty or platitudinous. Is this the point of the film? Is it intended to be as empty and platitudinous as life itself? Is it saying there are no significant illuminations? And that, in a world where anything can happen, physics and fables have to be equally true (or untrue)?
If so, it is saying no more than that God works in mysterious ways, which is fair enough, but we can only care about a random and unjust world if we care about the people in it, and I don’t think we do. They are all highly mocked caricatures, pretty much, and fat ladies are paraded just for a laugh. Even Larry is more annoying than sympathetic because he is so bizarrely passive. Rail, Larry, rail! Fight back! And while you are about it, punch that Sy in the face! But he won’t even sleep with the highly available sexpot next door. In fact, the most he ever does is have nightmares of the kind that result in him sitting bolt upright in bed, panting and sweating, as only happens in films and never in real life, except for maybe in the suburbs, where any cliché can happen.
This film does have its delicious moments — Sy offering Larry sanctimonious caresses and ‘understanding’; Danny stoned at his own Bar Mitzvah; Danny bored to death in Hebrew classes — and Michael Stuhlbarg does give an excellent, exasperated, frazzled lead performance, even if the character is such a dead loss. But without any warmth or expansiveness it all seems too cruelly easy and shrivelling somehow. ‘If God makes us feel the questions, why doesn’t he give us the answers?’ Larry wails at one point. I have no idea, but think an equally good thing to ask might be: ‘If the Coens want us to engage, why don’t they give us people to engage with?’ And if that isn’t Proust-ian, I’d like to know what is.