Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ethan Coen and Joel Coen | A Serious Man

by Douglas Messerli

Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (writers and directors) A Serious Man / 2009

A Yiddish peasant's cart beaks down when, suddenly, out of nowhere a man in a horsecart appears to help him. Miraculously, he is an acquaintance, so the peasant invites him to dinner. Upon telling his wife the story, she becomes horrified, for the good Samaritan, she has heard, died years before. He must be a dybbuk, a body possessed by a dead spirit. When the "dybbuk" appears at the door, she announces her feelings, which he politely denies: here he stands before them, not dead in the least, but a helpful passerby. Without hesitation she stabs him with a kitchen knife. For a moment he looks utterly surprised, but quickly regains his composure. No, he will not stay for dinner, not remain in a house where he is not wanted. However, as he leaves we can see a blood stain slowly growing over his chest where she has stabbed him. Is he a dybbuk surviving the wound or a man about to die? The couple are cursed forever for their possible mistake.

The uncertainty of the situation, the curse of the dead, and the ludicrousness of the system of beliefs underlying this tale sets the tone for the Coen brothers' new film, A Serious Man, set in St. Paul, Minnesota in the late 1960s, where the brothers grew up.

Larry Gopnik (wonderfully performed by Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physics teacher at a local university who is about to be reviewed for tenure, blessed with a wife, two children, and a nice suburban home. True, he is tormented by a brother living with them, who spends most of his time in their bathroom draining a cyst. But otherwise his life, if uneventful, is what he might describe as ordinary and pleasant.

His children, we soon discover, have little interest in their education or, for that matter, anything of value. The boy, Danny, about to be bar mitzvahed, is forced to go to Hebrew classes, during which he secretly listens to music on his headphones. Outside of the classroom his greatest activity is smoking pot. Sarah, the daughter, consistently steals money from her father's billfold and spends most of her time, as Larry later puts it, "washing her hair."

Larry's wife Judith suddenly announces that she wants a divorce; she has fallen in love with another man, Sy Ableman, an oily pragmatist with whom one finds it hard to imagine any could fall in love. Not only does she suggest her husband move to a living room cot (Larry's brother inhabits the couch), but she insists upon a Get, a Jewish decree that will allow her to remarry.
At school, a Asian graduate student whom Larry has failed, tries to bribe him by leaving behind an envelope filled with hundred dollar bills, and when the professor attempts to return the incriminating evidence, threatens to sue him for defamation. A fellow professor reports, moreover, that the tenure committee has been receiving anonymous letters attacking Larry's moral character.

What more could go wrong? In the Coens' world this is only a warm up for a series of painful events as Larry is forced to move with his brother into the Jolly Roger Motel, discovers through the police that his brother has been gambling, is sexually tortured by the nude sunbathing of the woman next door, is involved in a car accident, and—when his wife's lover Sy is killed in an coincidental accident—is forced to pay for his enemy's funeral! Wait! More is coming. The Coen's great joke in this well-crafted and alternately sad and silly tale is that the sufferings of a schlep like Larry can be worse even than those of the Old Testament's Job.

The subject, the utter unpredictability of life, is a rich one, especially when the hero, like Job, is a believer, a good man. In his search for answers, Larry seeks out three rabbis who, predictably, can offer him nothing accept simple prescriptions ("you have to see things from a different perspective") or meaningless stories (the second rabbi's tale of a dentist who discovers a secret message in the teeth of one of his patients is a gem). The third rabbi (played by an acquaintance of mine, Alan Mandell) can't be bothered to see him. The attorney only complicates Larry's life further by charging him large sums of money.

What happens to faith, to one's sense of being, to an understanding of the universe—a subject at the heart of Larry's love of physics—when faced with such a series of dilemmas and betrayals? Would that the Coens might really care about these issues and at least seek out some possible suggestions to the problem, even if we know there can be no real explanation.

Too often in their films, the Coen brothers present characters that are more like cartoons than actual living folk, and in this film we quickly discover ourselves unable to sympathize with anyone, including the confused Larry; he's so passive and unassertive that, at times, we almost feel he deserves what he got. And the Coens, in their adolescent abuse of their character types, purposely manipulate us to laugh and cry at situations that often are so bizarre that we feel the directors are simply thumbing their nose at us.

For a few moments in this film, a fog seems to lift: stoned out of his mind, Danny nonetheless gets through his reading of the Torah splendidly: the family is proud, Larry's wife almost seeming to suggest that there might be a way to return to normalcy. Larry even gets tenure.
But the Coens are determined to turn even that possible resurrection of life into a joke. The doctor calls, reporting that there was something in Larry's recent X-rays that they need to discuss. A tornado is pounding down upon Danny's school and the principal cannot seem to open the basement door. The End. Thumbing their nose in complete disrespect of any genuine audience emotion, the Coens throw their work to the dogs. All right, so there is no predictable order in the world! But even Job finally got a break, was ultimately restored to God, awarded a new family and wealth and allowed to live on for 140 years.

As my companion Howard observed: the Coens are perpetual whiners angry with the universe for its failure to provide answers, pouting smart alecks afraid to admit that compassion might possibly exist.

Los Angeles, October 9, 2009
Copyright (c) 2010 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

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