The fourteenth feature of Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man is the first that seems vaguely personal, which means just outside their ultracontrolled comfort zone: I got the feeling they had little idea what they would end up with when they sat down to write. Is it a comedy? A tragedy? It’s right on the border, a broad Jewish joke that morphs into a jeremiad, a tale of woe—that keeps you wondering if the punch line, when it comes, will make you laugh or want to kill yourself, or both.
In 1967 in suburban Minneapolis, a Jewish physics professor named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is the image of stability: His son (Aaron Wolff) is about to be bar mitzvahed, his college is on the verge of granting him tenure. But things begin to get strange, even David Lynchian. His slobby, hapless brother (Richard Kind) moves into his house and spends a lot of time draining a sebaceous cyst. An envelope of money appears on his desk, ostensibly (but can he be sure?) a bribe from a Korean student who failed a test. Anonymous letters denigrating his character appear in his colleagues’ mailboxes. Then his wife (Sari Lennick) breaks the news that she has become close with an older man, a widower named Sy (Fred Melamed), and asks for a Jewish divorce, a “get.” Burly, obsequious Sy enfolds Larry in a hug and rumbles, “Such a thing, such a thing … We’re gonna be fine.” Fine is what Larry will never be. God—or is it the Coens?—is starting to have some fun at his expense.
Stuhlbarg is a stage actor who has been in few films, and his face is so ordinary and indistinct behind his glasses it’s hard to get a read on him. Is he meant to be a funny zhlub, like a young Eugene Levy? You wait for cues that never come: His visage only tightens, his lips pressing together from the effort not to scream. Stricken, Larry sits at a lake beside a friend (a luminous Katherine Borowitz) in leg braces. She says, “It’s not always easy, deciphering what God is trying to tell you,” and directs him to seek out the stories of his people handed down for thousands of years. The first rabbi he approaches, an earnest young assistant, advises Larry to appreciate the beauties of God’s creation and gestures out the window to a remarkably forgettable parking lot. The second, middle-aged rabbi, relates a parable called the “goy’s teeth” that will be savored for millennia by stoned rabbinical students, and adds that God owes us nothing—that the obligation goes the other way. There is a third, ancient rabbi whose words you’ll have to hear for yourself. But science is no more soothing than religion. After filling a titanic blackboard from top to bottom to illustrate Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Larry utters a line that will enter the lexicon: “Even if you can’t figure it out, you’re still responsible for it on the midterm.”
A Serious Man is the Coens’ true follow-up to their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men—a Jewish take on the question of cosmic injustice. As in No Country, no one sees the entire picture—except, perhaps, the Almighty, who is, if He exists, a crueler jokester than even the makers of Blood Simple and Burn After Reading. The vision is mordant and absurdist—but not nihilistic. The Coens open with a quote from Rashi: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” The lesson of Larry Gopnik is how to lose gracefully.
It’s fascinating that the Coens, who’ve been working their way through movie tropes since 1984, have used Cormac McCarthy as a springboard to their own childhood. A Serious Man is an artistic leap, although it’s far from perfect. Some of their work is mannered, like the kids’ over-orchestrated cussing, the cartoon-shrew wife, and the fleshy close-ups. (Jews are earthy and have ear hair, we know.) But I love how the Coens bring out the unnatural perspectives of sixties suburbia—the hard, canted lines of lawns and fences and ticky-tack houses. On the roof, trying to adjust the antenna so his son can watch F Troop, Larry watches his hostile Gentile deer-hunting neighbors on one side and a naked housewife smoking a joint on the other, while the scrambled sounds of his era waft up from the TV.
Initially, the Coens conceived of the film as having two protagonists, the father and the son (in 1967, Ethan and Joel were 10 and 13 respectively), but drifted toward Larry as they wrote. That might account for why the film’s most uproarious epiphany—a Bar Mitzvah seen through the haze of marijuana—is the boy’s and not his father’s. But the various perspectives gel. A Serious Man is not only hauntingly original, it’s the final piece of the puzzle that is the Coens. Combine suburban alienation, philosophical inquiry, moral seriousness, a mixture of respect for and utter indifference to Torah, and, finally, a ton of dope, and you get one of the most remarkable oeuvres in modern film.