A SERIOUS MAN (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)

Joel and Ethan Cohen have finally made a serious film, one not besmirched by their collaborative smirk or addicted to either violence or their love of movies instead of life. If winning Oscars for No Country for Old Men (2007) liberated them to write and direct A Serious Man, a wonderful dark comedy, then I am glad they won these prizes. Meanwhile, the brothers’ Serious screenplay has been named the year’s best by the National Society of Film Critics and the National Board of Review.
     But I protest a comment of theirs! The Coens are being disingenuous when they say that the nineteenth-century Yiddish prologue, a faux-folk tale set in Eastern Europe, is unrelated to the rest of the film. The unresolved ambiguity of the stabbed gentleman, whether he is alive or dead, an innocent human or an evil dybbuk, introduces the uncertainty that plagues physics professor Lawrence Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, as marvelously anxious as Woody has ever been), whose mathematics in 1967 suburban Minneapolis—the Coen brothers’ own childhood St. Louis Park—cannot resolve the matter. (Joel and Larry’s son, Danny, had their bar mitzvahs the same year.) Poor Larry!
     The film opens by quoting Rashi (French medieval Talmudic scholar Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki): “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” Larry’s mind, on the other hand, works overtime no matter what happens to him. I think reviewers may be missing the point by describing Larry as a Job-figure; rather, Larry sees himself as Job, believing he is constantly being tested without any nod to clarification or completion. What is Hashem doing?! Well, maybe nothing. (I learned this from the film: Hashem, which is Hebrew for the Name, references God without naming the Unnameable.) One is supposed to be “good.” But what does that mean? Am I my brother’s keeper? Well, Larry takes in his brilliant, loose-minded brother, Arthur, thus rescuing him from homelessness, and thereby suffers the disgrace of official charges against Arthur of illegal gambling and sodomy (?!)—and Arthur’s presence may even contribute to the unraveling of Larry’s marriage. Still, there may be no moral conclusion to draw from any of this. Shit happens.
     The gathering tornado with which the film stunningly ends: cosmic judgment—or, simply, weather? We definitely feel that the Coens feel that the latter is the case. But who among us knows?
     Larry’s inability to control his rambunctious children—his daughter steals, looking forward to rhinoplasty; his son navigates Hebrew school by clandestinely listening to rock ’n’ roll—correlates to his inability to control anything else.
     Larry tries desperately hard to be “a serious man.” Too bad one has to be dead before some rabbi will declare this about someone. Larry needs to embrace the sense in which each of us isn’t one or the other, among the living or the dead, but both simultaneously. We are where we are and where we are headed.
     The cinematography by Roger Deakins is the year’s best (Independent Spirit Award, San Francisco critics).

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