He may seem cruel and indifferent. He may even be vain and jealous (Exodus 20:5.) Still, thank HaShem for the Coens! Like manna from Heaven, the brothers are the cinematic gift that keeps on giving. At this late date, you probably know if you vibe to the Coen’s mordantly kooky aesthetic or not. And if you do, A Serious Man, their sardonic reimagining of the Book of Job set in late-sixties Jewish suburbia, is another great movie in a career full of them.
Assuredly better than the fun but uneven Burn After Reading, this is basically the film The Man Who Wasn’t There aspired to be, and I’d say it sits comfortably next to the likes of Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Raising Arizona, and Barton Fink. (That being said, I still reserve a place of honor for Miller’s Crossing and The Big Lebowski.) A word of warning, tho’ — Despite the funny on hand here, and there is quite a bit of funny, in a way this world may be the Coens’ darkest yet. True, God may have forsaken the bleak Texas landscape of No Country back in 2007, but at least He wasn’t laughing at us then.
Why so serious? Well, it’s 5727, and Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is having a very bad time of it. After a brief fable involving the visitation of a possible dybbuk a century or so earlier, and a few moments of Larry’s son Danny (Aaron Wolff) communing with the Rabbi Slick, we get to see poor Larry navigate a frozen run of luck like you read about. He has quite literally become his brother’s keeper — Arthur (Richard Kind) lives in the bathroom, draining his sebaceous cyst at all hours of the day. Larry’s wife (Sari Lennick) wants a get (a what?) so she can remarry a family friend, the exasperating and sonorous Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed.) One of his physics students (David Kang) is trying to bribe him for a better grade (and, to his credit, both he and his father do seem to understand Schrodinger’s cat pretty well.) His tenure committee chair is acting squirrelly, and receiving hate-filled letters about Gopnik from an unknown source. His son has bully problems, his daughter wants a nose job, his very goy neighbor is encroaching on the property line…
When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies, where do you turn? Well, Larry is physicist enough to realize that one of these many accumulating straws is eventually going to break his back. And so, in the manner of generations before him, he decides to look for rabbinical wisdom into his plight. Alas, easier said than done. The first rabbi he visits (Simon Helberg) can offer only the altered perspective afforded by the synagogue parking lot and the threat of an angry HaShem. The second (George Wyner), only a bewildering mashal about “The Goy’s Teeth.” And the third — well, he’s as inscrutable and as hard-to-reach as HaShem Himself…although perhaps a bar mitzvah kid might have an in.
There’s a lot going on in A Serious Man — much of which, being of the goy persuasion, undoubtedly flew over my head — and this definitely seems like a movie that will reward repeat viewings and/or a Jewish upbringing. (Knowledge of the Old Testament will help too — I knew enough to recognize Jacob’s Ladder to the roof, but was the all-hearing, F-Troop-bestowing antenna up there the angel Larry must wrestle or a potential Burning Bush? Seems like Larry kinda saw another angel up there.) But, in making heads or tails of it all, I did fall back on a few touchstones. (They could be the wrong touchstones of course, so your mileage may vary.)
One was also the basic conceit of Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, that the Torah is basically a number set, so conversations here about high-level physics (Schrodinger, Heisenberg) are one-of-a-piece with the existential or Talmudic questions presented. (The Coens give us a hint in this direction with the “Mentaculus,” a complex numerology system that Larry’s brother Arthur uses to cheat at cards.) So, when Larry lectures his student about knowing math rather than understanding math, for example, I think there’s a good bit more in play for later on.
The other work that came to mind, and this was a more impressionistic connection, was Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral, another Jewish-American tale of things-falling-apart, and America reaping the whirlwind of the late sixties. It’s hard to say, and fun to think about, what exactly is going on here in the closing moments. (Is this punishment for straying from the path, or just another outbreak of Chigurh-like randomness? I think the former, but I could be wrong.) But perhaps the Airplane, who (almost) start and (almost) end the film, is on the right track here, particularly given that they’re basically paraphrasing the wisdom of Shammai: “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.“