In comparison to just about every other film Joel and Ethan Coen have directed in the last fifteen years or so, A Serious Man seems at first glance to be small and maybe even minor. It follows on the heels of the two biggest films the Minnesotan brothers have helmed thus far — which happen to be two of the most different films the same two people could ever possibly make. In 2007, they released their austere Texan serial killer saga No Country for Old Men, which became their biggest critical hit since 1996’s Fargo, even surpassing that film in the eyes of many by clinching the Best Picture win at the Academy Awards. It topped so many critics’ lists and dominated the Oscars so thoroughly (in addition to Best Picture it also took Best Director, Adapted Screenplay and a Supporting Actor trophy for Javier Bardem and his terrifying haircut), that for some the parade of praise became a little boring, and though No Country has endured repeated viewings and intensive scrutiny, its slavish perfection can also be a bit distancing, and its frigid efficiency is easier to admire than to love. While the brothers’ Fargo has the jovial Frances McDormand to provide some relief from its nihilism, the morally-steadfast but far more stoical Tommy Lee Jones can’t quite do the same for No Country. And in a banner year for American films, more messy, ambitious works like Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, and even David Fincher’s Zodiac, remain, to me at least, slightly preferable.
The Coens turned the expressiveness dial far in the opposite direction for their looney, cartoon follow-up, last year’s Burn After Reading, a farcical FBI romp that stacks the deck with characters just as removed from our own emotional plane as those in No Country, but ones who are also frequently unpleasant and only sporadically funny. The star-studded ensemble cast — which includes two of the three “Ocean’s 11” remake headliners — ensured the film a hefty box office intake, but most were surprised and even disheartened to see it become the brothers’ highest grossing film to date. (Not to mention disappointed by the fact that because of this, and for a long time to come, Burn‘s title will sit alongside No Country‘s and the words “from the makers of” on all promotional material for upcoming Coen films.) Few will deny that the brothers’ comedies are more divisive than their dramas. Their special brand of hyperactive humor can jive with the project they apply it to (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), or the resulting film could be reasonably compared to a Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn romp on crack cocaine (Intolerable Cruelty). Burn unfortunately registers as closer to the latter extreme than the former, and on repeated viewings it only seems more bombastic and tiresome.
Now, A Serious Man, a film which stands up to multiple viewings. It’s not an adaptation of a major literary work by a respected American novelist, and it’s not a flashy, over-the-top star showcase. Its actors are largely unknown to big screen audiences, with lead Michael Stuhlbarg more recognizable for his work in the theater, and many of the supporting players either making their professional acting debut or primarily known for bit parts on various television shows—and yet all are uniformly excellent. The Coens are working from one of their original screenplays, and though that didn’t serve them very well with Burn After Reading, the material they’ve written here is decidedly more personal. The story is set in 1967 and involves a Jewish family living in a Minnesota suburb — around the same time of the Coens own Jewish, Minneapolis upbringing. It centers on Larry Gopnick (Stuhlbarg), a devoted family man and professor of physics at a local university, who seems contended enough until he suddenly finds himself beset with “tsuris,” a litany of troubles that test his faith and his general resolve as a serious man. This particular series of unfortunate events begins when Larry fails to notice a slyly placed envelope of bribe money from his frazzled Korean student (David King) after refusing to alter his pupil’s failing grade. The inadvertent transaction serves as the catalyst of Larry’s misfortunes — whether that be coincidence or fate is entirely up to you to decide — and when he returns home that evening, he’s confronted by his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), who suggests they get a divorce. Soon, more bad news: Larry learns someone’s been sending dissuasive letters to the school board, urging them not to grant his tenure; Judith informs him of her intention to remarry family friend and widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed); Larry gets angry phone calls requesting payment for a monthly record club he didn’t join; his young son (Aaron Wolf) almost botches his Bar Mitzvah by smoking pot beforehand; and his brother (Richard Kind) finds himself in trouble with the police for unlawful gambling. Angry and increasingly inquisitive over the meaning of his existence, Larry seeks council from a hierarchy of three rabbis (young, old, and the heavily guarded, ancient Rabbi Marshak), in the process becoming mired in legalities and overwhelmed by guileless lawyers.
The Coens have faced almost as many accusations of misanthropy as Lars von Trier for putting their characters through the ringer, but detractors should put away the knives this time around — A Serious Man is different in a crucial way. There’s something of a realization when the film, and it comes about when your sympathies for earnest, answer-seeking Larry shift, and you begin to understand the perspective of the rabbis, who urge him, basically, not to ask so many questions. “Receive everything with simplicity that happens to you,” the film’s seemingly aloof opening mantra reads, but that advice takes on a quietly powerful resonance, as it’s put into action in at least two crucial scenes.
The first is the film’s bizarre, entirely in Yiddish, opening anecdote; a prologue set in a European shtetl as geographically removed from the film’s main action as it is temporally. Thematically, however, there’s correlation: A Bear of a man arrives home to his frumpy wife and regales her with a story about meeting their elderly neighbor on the road and inviting him for supper. When he tells his thus-far-disinterested wife the man’s name, she turns sheet-white and explains that the man her husband speaks of has been dead for three years. Soon, a knock on the door announces the arrival of their guest, who the wife promptly deems a “dybbuk”—which Wikipedia defines as “a malicious possessing spirit, believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person.” The segment ends with one of the Coens’ characteristically abrupt acts of violence, as the wife plunges an ice pick into her guest’s chest, to which he responds by chuckling warmly and wandering off into the thick of a snowstorm. (“A man knows when he’s not welcome,” he concludes.) The Coens neither confirm that this visitor was indeed a dybbuk, as the wife seemed so certain he was, nor do they suggest that the woman has committed a grave error and killed an innocent man. The unspoken punch line: Who cares? And it’s that exact line that we hear later from the Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner), in response to Larry’s inquiry about the outcome of his equally bizarre story—involving Hebrew text found inscribed on the back of a goy’s teeth.
What works extraordinarily well in this deftly plotted and impeccably paced film is the Coens’ fusion of their considerable comedic and dramatic powers, maybe the most satisfying blend of the two they’ve yet concocted. The dialogue takes on an almost rhythmic poetry — no other filmmakers could use the line, “He’s a fucker,” to establish the tempo of a scene — as suggested in the brilliant trailer’s comical repetitions. For maybe the first time, the Coens manage to duck both the oppressive seriousness of No Country and their noir The Man Who Wasn’t There, while also avoiding the dreaded Coen-screwball impulse, which has manifested itself in films as disparate and equally unsuccessful as the aforementioned Burn After Reading, the misfire rom-rom Intolerable Cruelty, and the somewhat appropriately screwball, but no less disastrous, The Hudsucker Proxy. On the contrary, A Serious Man is understated without being drab, and it’s smart-funny without being intellectually distancing — such as, say, Charlie Kaufman’s self-deprecating screenplays. It’s a relatively simple, straightforward parable, but the philosophical implications are as rich as those some read into No Country. A Serious Man is the Coens’ attempt to navigate the tricky contradictions of a Jewish man’s devout spirituality and need to comprehend things on a logical, tangible level. But the Coens are storytellers, not philosophers, and though their films grapple with some big ideas, they’ll probably be the first to tell you, “Don’t look to us for the answers.” The ending of Burning After Reading anti-climaxes with the line, “What did we learn?” The ending of No Country finds its thoughtful sheriff resigned if not defeated by the horrors he’s seen. And the end of A Serious Man, well, it’s even more open ended than any of their previous conclusions (and, side note, its impending maelstrom establishes a weird similarity with Robert Altman’s underrated Dr. T. & the Women). But even if one of the best endings this year doesn’t work for you, there’s so much else in A Serious Man that should, from Stuhlbarg’s kite-in-the-wind performance to the canny use of Jefferson Airplane songs, and the big pay-off they provide. If you find your head filled with even more questions by the end of the film than you had at the start, that’s kind of the point. Just remember what the dormouse said.