I guess gleeful misanthropy wasn't enough for the Coen Brothers. Now they want to make it clear that God … excuse me, Hashem … is an unforgiving bastard. Though their scorn for humanity has long been evident, lately the Minnesota auteurs have been seething with unbridled contempt, producing films that revel in the shallow, selfish stupidity of mankind. Burn After Reading was a bleak indictment of Bush-era priorities; No Country for Old Men pitted two morally indefensible men in a compelling struggle to the death then told us the outcome wasn't worth witnessing. I'm a fan of both films, but one wonders if the brothers will ever create a character as inspired as Marge Gunderson or The Dude again.
It's not the case with feckless Larry Gopnick, the protagonist of their latest comedic spiral into despair, A Serious Man. Living in late '60s Minnesota, Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a Jewish physics professor under domestic and professional siege. His selfish kids are indifferent to him. His hostile neighbor plans to steal part of his property. A failing student tries to bribe him while an anonymous letter writer seeks to poison his chances for tenure. His sad-sack brother (Richard Kind) leeches off his goodwill and his shrew of a wife (Sari Lennick) cheats on him with a pretentious blowhard. "Be reasonable," they tell him, forcing Larry to move into the Jolly Roger Motel. Will he accept the bribe? Sleep with his serpent-eyed neighbor who "takes advantage of the new freedoms"? Find out why Hashem has painted a bull's-eye on his back?
Larry, a lo-fi, suburbanized version of Job, is dared to compromise his values. And feeling the capriciousness of God's will, he desperately seeks meaning from three different rabbis. Of course, this being a Coen Brothers' movie, religious tradition is seen as arbitrary and worthless, while work and family are revealed to be a never-ending series of humiliations. So, is A Serious Man a debate about the nature of faith or an indictment of modern Jewish despair?
"Why does God make us feel the questions, if he isn't going to give us the answers?" Larry asks. This, along with an opening quote from Rashi — "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you" — are rare examples of the Coens actually telling you what their movie is about. Ask a film critic to do the same for Barton Fink, Fargo or The Big Lebowski and wait for the lengthy pause before arriving at some vaguely persuasive conclusion. A Serious Man's message is clear: Life is filled with meaningless suffering. Get used to it. Whether that means it's pointless or too complex to grasp is up to you. Just don't expect God to help and don't make him mad.
But really the parable of Larry's fate is a stacked deck. As the sibling filmmakers have done in so many of their movies, they use camera shots that descend from on high to focus on the pathetic flailings of their painfully mortal characters. And it becomes poignantly evident that it is not Hashem that Larry answers to, but rather the Coen Brothers themselves.
While the cast of character actors is terrific, their roles are surprisingly opaque and mostly underwritten. For the claims that this is the Coen Brothers' most personal film yet, where's the rich affection the filmmakers have shown for past characters? Here they're defined by repellant behavior and physical grotesqueries (though, thankfully, the sebaceous cyst remains implied).
Even Larry, who seeks to be taken seriously, is reduced to a constant state of frustrated politeness and frantic confusion. You spend the entire movie wishing he'd just grow a pair and fight for what he wants.
Which is, of course, the Coens' point. And there's lots of their trademark darkly hued comedy and clever visuals to pull us along. Whether it's the constant shots of ears (that don't listen), Larry's impotent attempts to adjust the TV antennae on his roof, or the ominous storm that gathers on the finale's horizon, the metaphors come thick and fast.
The film's most striking moments come in a 10-minute prologue set in a Polish shtetl, where Gopnick's ancestors supposedly encounter a dybbuk (a malevolent Jewish spirit). Does Larry's great-great-great-great-grandmother's violent reaction curse their family for eternity, or is it simply a tragic case of mistaken identity? The answer, like all of life, is unknowable. But the Gopnicks, and by extension the Coen Brothers, are responsible.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].