Directed and written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
“React with simplicity to everything that happens to you” – Rashi
“When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies” – Jefferson Airplane
The first quote opens “A Serious Man,” the new film by the Coen Bros. The second is spoken to a Bar Mitzvah boy by a wizened old rabbi, quoting Jefferson Airplane in a scene that (like much of the film) teeters on the edge between anguish and absurdity.
“A Serious Man” is a serious (and seriously funny) meditation on little themes like the meaning of life and why are we here and how can we know God’s purpose, and is as funny, heartbreaking, questioning, trying, exasperating and sincerely inquisitive a portrait of the human condition as you’ll find on screen.
You could call it their take on the story of Job, relocated to the Jewish community of 1967 Minneapolis and reincarnated in the person of university physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), who at least is better off than the Biblical Job. Larry has a suburban home (bland) and family (unappreciative) and a level of middle class affluence that give him a comfortable living. His torments are neither cosmic nor epic but they are very human and seem random and undeserved. Then again, that’s the world he lives in as a physics professor, somewhere between the certainty of math and the uncertainty of life.
While he teaches his students such conundrums as Schrödinger’s Cat and the Heisenberg Principle, where philosophy and physics meet to prove that we can never really know anything for sure (though that doesn’t excuse anyone from knowing this material for the finals), he flails for meaning in his own existence. A bare recounting of the plot and Larry’s trials might sound bleak (divorce, disrespect, the victim of smears and threats) but the Coens fill the story with their own brand of off-center, dryly delivered humor and flavored with the ethnic edges of a Catskills comedian.
Stuhlbarg has the hapless look of a comic fall guy, his face always pinched in anxiety, his eyes questioning, a man perpetually hoping for the best and expecting (and often getting) the worst. Larry is the Jewish everyman as victim of a cosmic joke, or maybe just a guy on a frustrating streak of bad luck. As it piles up and intrudes on his dreams, he just searches even harder to come to grips with his existential crisis. “Why does Hashem (Hebrew for “the name”) make us feel the questions if he won’t give use the answers?” asks Larry of his Rabbi (George Wyner). He answers simply and with a smile, “He hasn’t told me.”
Does it all come down to life as a joke with a bitter punchline? I don’t think so. Under the eccentric characters and cultural oddities and curve-ball narrative is a film as painfully funny as it is profoundly and richly human, a thoughtful portrait of vulnerability and resilience in the face of uncertainty, and to date the definitive treatise on the world according to the Coens.
The Coens frame the film in a folk tale played for maximum ambiguity, a fable with a lesson that we may not have been expecting and is repeated time and again through the film. “Embrace the mystery,” is one reading. Because there aren’t any answers is another.