Oscars in tow, Joel and Ethan Coen don’t seem to know the meaning of a slow period. Their latest project, A Serious Man, just like Burn After Reading before it, is a small film with big ambitions. It is a family drama; it is a memoir of the golden age of American suburban rabbinic Judaism; it is a study of the intellect’s struggle with the belief (or disbelief) in a higher power. Acerbically funny and virtuously moody, this film is yet another feather in the cap of the brothers Coen.
In a landscape littered with cinematic imposters, A Serious Man features a main character who can accurately be described as a classic “schlemiel”. Larry Gopnik, played with remarkable sincerity by Michael Stuhlbarg, is a man who never asked for anything from God in his life, but when he is faced with trial upon trial, Mr. Gopnik finds his latent bent to the point of imminent breakage. A Physics professor at the local university, Larry is an impotent, small man who gets trampled from every angle. His wife is leaving him, a student is stong-arming him into a getting a better grade, his pothead son’s Bar Mitzvah is approaching amid mounting financial pressure, and his awkward brother takes up the only remaining space in his home.
The Coens make it clear early on that this story is a parable in the Jewish tradition. The first scene is in Yiddish, in the “old country”. As with the literature on which it is based, the scene has a clear beginning and middle, but the ending seems to be up to the viewer. The same goes for the film and the other parables sprinkled within. The answer is in the questions, so keep questioning, it would seem.
As Larry spirals deeper into his woeful situation, he hits on one of the great paradoxes of the intellect: that to refute the existence of a higher power, one must first accept that it exists to be able to disprove it. He is surrounded by fervent believers of whom he is jealous; Larry wants to believe that God will come to his aide. He is even ready to believe that this is all a test, a lesson of some sort. However, the community’s spiritual guides are not quite so quick to believe in divine troublemaking. Their faith is so sure, they would never question God in the way Larry does. Ironically, the Rabbis Larry consults would rather deny divinity than admit heavenly foul play. Whose faith is more certain?
Back again are all of the key players of any Coen brothers’ film. Roger Deakins bring his impeccable photography to the table, working in tandem with moving musical cues from the always enjoyable Carter Burwell. But my favorite member in this cabal of creatives has to be Skip Lievsay, whose pointed sound design continues to astound in every outing. There is such a respect for every miniscule detail of the frame, inside and out, that makes this team one of the peak performing cinematic forces on the planet. If it were up to me, they’d all get a blank check.
However, that would all be for naught if the stories that Joel and Ethan keep cooking up weren’t worth their weight in matzoh balls. There is a theatricality, a liveliness to the dialogue in A Serious Man. The push and pull that Larry must endure may frustrate us, but not to the point of unenjoyment. Rather, it is this awkward playfulness that draws us in and makes us feel warm and cozy in this otherwise disorienting film.
Yiddish literature, which is often branded as comedy, is not for the faint of heart. The laughs are contextual and communal, as in you might not get it if you weren’t born on a shtetl. In a coup for the lost art of Yiddishkeite, the Coens manage to transplant ideas from sages of yore into a more modern setting. Fear not, there is plenty for the Jewish nood to enjoy. After all, this is an American story, and the Coens are master storytellers when it comes to the peoples that populate this strange land. Focusing on their inner Jew (finally, tottelehs!), the effect is only amplified.