Review: A Serious Man

"This mix of trivial, silly, and essential in one taut narrative is what makes the Coens the best in the industry. "


As I was walking back from the theater after seeing A Serious Man, I was stopped on the street by a guy and his buddy. Of course, my guard was instantly up. Stranger danger! Would he want me to buy a magazine? Donate to a cause? Sign a petition? He held out a piece of paper in front of him, toward me, and our proximity made it impossible for me pretend I hadn't seen him. Manners triumphed my flight response and I noticed he was pointing to the address of a bank. My instincts switched in less than a second. In a rare turn of events I actually knew where this bank was, so I was in a position to give him the directions he sought. I pointed down the street and said, "About six blocks that way." He nodded appreciatively and went on his merry way, his silent friend in tow.

Did he make it to the bank? Why was he going there? And why did he have a printed-out copy of their address, but no car with which to find it? Did my initial body language convey I might be the sort of person who would give him the wrong directions? I'll never know. We'll never know. And this interaction, as irrelevant as it may seem, is paramount to our understanding of A Serious Man. Because what the Coen bros. continue to poke at is our laughable sense of control in a world we're clearly mostly powerless in.

To wit, one of the interactions that occurs in A Serious Man goes a little something like this:

Rabbi: We can't know everything.

Larry Gopnik: It sounds like you don't know anything!

Within this little chestnut the scope of the film is defined. A Serious Man is the story of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a man beset on all sides. It's 1967 in the Midwest. Larry is up for tenure, but everything else is going very poorly indeed. His wife wants out of the relationship, his kids smoke dope and don't listen, his uncle has some sort of gambling/lack of a place to live issue. The song "Don't You Want Somebody to Love?" from Jefferson Airplane blares throughout A Serious Man, and I'm sure there's meaning there too. But wowsers, is this movie largely unapproachable and inscrutable. Potentially great, too? Yes, possibly, if one submits to the idea that the Coens are smarter than your average film critic (including this one). The theories and feelings to consider come in waves here, giant concepts are played for laughs, and then those laughs are used to convey sadness. It's a giant spider that eats itself, trapped in its own web -- actions have consequences and then random outbursts are thrown in for dramatic effect. The Coens continue to play on the same concepts their previous films highlight: we live in a world where violence occurs instantaneously and without warning; no one really knows anything, but we're responsible for it all anyway. It has strands of I Heart Huckabees and Magnolia rolled into it, but only in the sense that it asks many questions while providing very few answers. And just when you've found some place to relate to A Serious Man, some small foothold, they play that cursed Jefferson Airplane song at you, grinning all the while:

When the truth is found to be lies /

And all the joy within you dies /

Don't you want somebody to love?

Yes, and this is the dilemma we all face on a daily basis. Everyone craves love, very few can keep it for long, and even fewer have any real understanding of what it takes to give it. Trust is essential to keep this whole experiment going, from the financial system to farming, and yet it's the one thing that's based completely on faith in others, people you can never really know. Faith in something, anything, is a necessity and yet human motivations and religious proof will always be outside the realm of our understanding. So we puff out our chests like peacocks and pray no one catches us wandering around in ignorance. This is the world the Coens delve into with each and every film, and yes, it's a total nightmare. They may do it with style and a smirk, but we should always consider the larger questions they're asking, which of our previously held beliefs they're subtlety poking at, and what exactly all these scenes of uncertainty and uncomfortable hilarity add up to.

Throughout the running time of A Serious Man Larry's son wants him to fix the TV antenna; F Troop is on and he wants to watch it. It's the absolute least of Larry's problems, but it seems important, it feels like "Man, if we could get just get this F-Troop thing cleared up we could build on that." This mix of trivial, silly, and essential in one taut narrative is what makes the Coens the best in the industry. Larry sees everything he loves stripped from him with ease. The uncertainty principle is brought up as casually as one goes out for a cup of coffee. A storm appears on the edge of town and people look off into the distance, appraising the threat, the American flag whipping around in a vicious wind. For many moments in A Serious Man you're those people. You know something is going on, something potentially dangerous, and if you could just look for just a few more seconds you're certain you could figure it all out. As you squint, the storm gains ground. Just a few more seconds...

Grade: B+