After viewing the trailer for the Coen brothers’ latest film A Serious Man (2009), I had slight reservations. The trailer provoked a response that was both tense and hilarious, nurtured by their eccentric tone. Yet, I was ambivalent about letting my hopes get the better of me. I had been burned by Burn After Reading (2008), a film whose trailer was infinitely more entertaining than the finished product and, frankly, a shaggy disappointment after the taut and dialed-in precision of their Academy Award winning adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2007). I wanted to get my hopes up for A Serious Man and, going into the screening, I felt that I had kept my subjective preference grounded in neutrality. By the time the lights came up two hours later with Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” fading through the speakers of the theater, I thought it was time to let my enthusiasm off the leash.
The Coens begin their film, allegedly based on their religious upbringing in a small Midwestern town in the late 1960s, with a folktale about a Jewish man who welcomes a neighbor into his house on a cold winter’s night. The man’s wife is convinced that the stranger is a dybbuk (a malicious spirit) and attempts to cast him from the house. Her husband feels the opposite, believing that the family has done nothing to deserve such a curse from God. This folktale serves as a summary for the bulk of the film: Regardless of whether you’re righteous or not, sometimes bad things happen to good people and it would be foolish to expect a rational explanation.
Following this brief prologue, the Coens throw us in a time machine aimed for Minnesota in the summer of 1967. We find the film’s protagonist, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor, in a stable headspace. He’s up for tenure and his son Danny’s (Aaron Wolff) Bar Mitzvah is approaching. Nevertheless, as John Lennon once sang, “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” By the time Larry arrives home after a favorable physical examination, he finds that one of his failing students is threatening to sue for defamation of character and that his wife (Sari Lennick) is planning to divorce him for another man (Fred Melamed). Then, there’s that annoying salesman from the Columbia Record Company who keeps calling with the hope of trying to collect on past due notice that Larry knows nothing about. For a professor whose specialty includes documenting complex theorems with mathematics (not anecdotes!), Larry is confused by the path his life has taken. Finding no logical explanation for his strange twist of fate, he turns to his rabbis and God for a religious explanation.
That’s the plot of the film in a nutshell. Of course, being a Coen brothers film, there are a lot of side plots and characters that enrich the milieu. Take, for instance, Larry’s son Danny. Danny is a young boy en route to becoming a Jewish man. Yet, whatever ambitions he has towards the Jewish faith or his Hebrew school curriculum are derailed by episodes of “F Troop” (1965), a transistor radio constantly playing Jefferson Airplane, and a growing reliance on marijuana. Through Danny and one of the Gropnik’s hippy neighbors, the Coens introduce the rise of American counterculture whose beliefs form a foil to Larry’s own. If, as the counterculture proposes, the established order represented by religion and science that Larry so urgently wants to trust in is a dead end, what alternative is there?
Is the alternative to be found in “The Menaculus,” a “probability map” that Larry’s brother Arthur (Richard Kind) has been working so diligently on? Can this text disclose the truth of the universe? While Arthur believes it may have helped him win in a poker game, the text is unable to foresee his own legal misfortunes. The Coens propose that religion, science, and even their offspring “The Menaculus” are ultimately futile when it comes to setting out on a life plan that will stand on a firm foundation. Does that mean that man is ultimately powerless in the face of God? Probably, but that’s assuming there is a God.
As Larry attempts to grapple with the mechanisms of fate and to wrestle back control of his destiny, he makes life decisions that appear to be both inconsequential and yet inspire consequences beyond logical comprehension. For instance, Larry gets in a car accident at the same time his wife’s lover suffers from a separate collision. Was Larry’s action somehow tied to the fate of his potential replacement? Do the results of a midterm examination cause an ominous phone call or are the two events unrelated? Those viewers looking for clear-cut answers in A Serious Man are likely to feel more confused than they did at the conclusion of No Country for Old Men. A Serious Man does not offer any definitive, absolute answers analogous with Larry’s mathematical proofs. Instead, the film presents a series of events that stands for the zeitgeist of the late ’60s in which, as one character tells Larry, one finds it fruitless to ask questions but must instead “accept the mystery.”
The product of this 105-minute investigation into existentialism could be viewed as certain in its uncertainty and thus prove to be an utterly maddening exercise, perhaps comparable to one of my favorite films of last year, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008). Unlike Kaufman however, the Coens keep the tone from getting too heartbreaking and the form from being too impenetrable. I’m confused by some of the negative reviews of the film, most notably those by the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern and The New Yorker’s David Denby. Morgenstern writes that the characters in A Serious Man are “repellent people…. caricatures [which] range from dislikable through despicable, with not a smidgeon of humanity to redeem them.” Denby’s criticisms follow a similar line of argument as he writes that the Coens’ tone is “bleak, black, [and] belittling.”
I agree that A Serious Man is bleak and black, but I don’t think that all of the characters in the film are “repellent” or that the Coens treat them all equally in a “belittling” fashion. Burn After Reading would be better described by Denby and Morgenstern in such a fashion whereas A Serious Man, particularly in the character of Larry (as played rather wonderfully by Stuhlbarg), would appear to be an example of the Coens at their most humane. Yes, the overall message is rather nihilistic. Sure, Larry might be cosmically screwed and there may be quite a bit of humor to take away from his situation, but we are also able to feel empathetic towards Larry. Sure, nihilism may push us to deny the absolutes proposed by science and religion, but does that conclusion render us utterly incapable of empathy? Like the Coens, I’m not so sure. However, my experience in their version of 1967 would seem to suggest that nihilism and emotional reciprocity are not necessarily incompatible.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.