It’s hard to know sometimes whether the Coen Brothers are… well, not pulling our collective leg, because it’s pretty clear that they’re authentically earnest with all their films, even the goofy ones (maybe even more so with the goofy ones.) But are they actually daring us, with each new film, to keep coming along with them? Are they trying to push us and their art so far that we’ll eventually just give up, just throw up our hands in frustration and say, “Bah!”?
If that’s what they want, they’re gonna have to try a lot harder, because they still haven’t succeeded here. A Serious Man could be a serious challenge to many a filmgoer, even those who look for more than exploding robots and emo vampires from their flicks. It has no stars — a brief cameo from Adam Arkin aside, character actor Richard Kind will be the most familiar face in any substantial role. It’s more Jewish — in a nation only 2 percent Jewish, and a world only .2 percent Jewish — than almost any other film could ever be called “Christian.” It’s more philosophical than most moviegoers will have any patience for. And if ever a film had a point, this one’s is: “Life is pointless, and so is this movie. Oh, and if God exists, he’s a bastard who is, at best, ignoring us, and at worst, is actively fucking with us. Enjoy!”
For this, we go to the movies?
Well, yeah. True lovers of film as something to provoke thought and stimulate emotion in ways that go beyond mere visceral reaction will thrill to Man — this is so unclassifiable a film that even thinking about how to categorize it will lead you down a dozen different and conflicting tangents from which to consider it, none of which are contradictory and all of which are wonderfully surprising. In places the film is droll but melancholy. In others it’s hilarious yet heartbreaking. In all, it’s ironic but sincere. We could even call it postsnark, as if the Coens (Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men) are using the posture of sarcasm and satire that we’ve come to know so well in recent years — not just from these guys but as the dominant outlook of thoughtful films for the last decade or more — and finally made us understand that, Look, they’re not kidding: they’ve got serious questions and serious concerns and they’d like some goddamn answers from the management, even though they know, somewhere deep down that doesn’t want to acknowledge it, that there are no answers to be had, and probably no management in charge.
How they go about expressing this most modern of angst — this could be, attitudinally, the first movie of the second decade of the 21st century — is through their new Job, physics professor Larry Gopnik, who, in 1967 Minneapolis, finds himself suddenly under metaphysical attack on all sides. His wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), wants a divorce. His brother, Arthur (Kind: For Your Consideration), is leeching off his hospitality. His hoped-for upcoming tenure at the university is threatened. His teenaged kids, Danny and Sarah (Aaron Wolff and Jessica McManus), ignore him. His sexy neighbor, Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker: Dan in Real Life), tempts him. Everywhere he turns, poor Larry is besieged — New York theater actor Michael Stuhlbarg is so utterly sympathetic as Larry, so yearning for relief that you cannot help but ache for him.
This totally originally creation of Joel and Ethan Coen — they wrote the script, not based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy or anyone else — is semiautobiographical, distilling the ethos and atmosphere of their Midwestern childhoods in an intellectual Jewish community in the late 1960s… or so they’ve said, and there’s no reason to doubt them. What they may not realize is that right here, in this story, we may have the key to understanding the Coens’ entire oeuvre. The way the boys highlight Larry’s pain and his quest for help is so bursting with ridiculous pathos that the whole endeavor becomes elevated and noble and preposterous and inconsequential all at once. You think you’ve got troubles? Larry is getting harrassing phone calls from the Columbia House Record Club demanding money for albums he never ordered! And his doctor is calling about those troubling X-rays. And the three rabbis Larry seeks out have bupkis to comfort him. Life sucks, God doesn’t care about you, and there’s no reason for anything that happens. Might as well get used to it.
Hopeful? Actually, it kinda is. I’m sure there are jokes and nuances I didn’t get because I’ve never studied Torah and have never been terrorized by a rabbi who tells useless parables in the mistaken belief that this would make my troubles disappear. But at least now I get Barton Fink. I think…