The trials of Job in 1950s Midwestern Jewish suburbia. That might be the best way to describe the dark comedy A Serious Man, which many are saying is the Coen brothers most personal film to date.
What, then, to make of the film’s protagonist, Larry Gopnik, played by New York theater vet Michael Stuhlbarg, and clearly a stand-in for Joel and Ethan’s dad? Yes, Larry is a decent man—his quest to be a serious one is open to debate. But he’s also a total doormat.
Early in the film, Larry’s wife (Sari Lennick) tells him she’s leaving him for family friend Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed). Somehow she manages to turn this announcement into a harangue—she’s annoyed at Larry because he forced her to cheat on him (or something like that). Sy, on the other hand, wants to prove what a mensch he is by comforting Larry. “It’s going to be okay,” he repeats unctuously, enveloping Larry in an unwanted embrace.
At the university where Larry teaches physics, a Korean student (drolly funny Danny Kang) tries to blackmail Larry into giving him a passing grade. Larry is outraged, but doesn’t act. Indeed, his entire personality seems to revolve around fretful ineffectualness.
Everyone seems to recognize what an inconsequential man Larry is, including the three rabbis he turns to for advice. One pawns him off on an underling, the other tells him an empty parable that seems to bear no relationship to Larry’s troubles, the third claims he’s too busy to see him.
The Coen brothers point in all of this seems to be: Life sucks and then you die. Or perhaps: Don’t attempt to look for meaning in your life—there is none. Or perhaps that old Jewish chestnut: It could always get worse.
I had assumed that since the Coen brothers were mining such personal territory, it might curb some of their misanthropic tendencies. Au contraire. Virtually every character in this film is repulsive in some way; Larry is taking care of his gambling addicted brother (Richard Kind) who mopes around the house in saggy underpants and periodically drains a cyst on his back; Larry’s son Danny (Aaron Wolf) is more concerned with getting high and watching F-Troop than noticing (or caring about) his family’s unraveling; Larry’s vaguely menacing next door neighbor—the neighbors call him “the Gentile”—takes his son out of school to go hunting.
A Serious Man opens with what seems to be an old Jewish parable about an old man who may or may not be a dybbuk (evil spirit) who helps a villager in the snow and then is killed by the villager’s wife. Was the old man really a dybbuk? Or did the wife just kill a kindly do-gooder? Either way, the couple seems cursed.
The parable’s relation to the rest of the film is never made clear—is the couple supposed to be a descendant of the Gepniks? Or are the Coens suggesting that all Jewish people are cursed in some way? Or is the opening parable an object lesson of sorts—we try in vain to find meaning in the story, just as Larry tries, in vain, to find meaning in his own suffering?
Whatever the case—bummer, man.