Job has nothing on Larry Gopnik.
A Serious Man, Joel and Ethan Coen’s darker-than-dark comedic update of the Old Testament story to a modern, thoroughly Jewish setting, places its pathetic protagonist in the position of fate’s punching bag.
The film opens in old Poland with the parable of a Yiddish couple’s run-in with a possible dybbuk, a reanimated corpse. The scene shallowly predicts the origins of Larry Gopnik’s curse but offers no deep or lasting connection to the main narrative.
The story shifts to Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor in late 1960s Minnesota who rather suddenly finds his family collapsing, his job prospects dwindling and his faith in his community shaken.
A Serious Man is strongly situated in its setting, partially as a function of its quasi-autobiographical nature. As with Fargo, the Coens draw from their own childhood experiences in the Midwest to create a complex canvas blotted with truths and fictions.
Certainly the film’s revolutionary themes — free love and Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” serve as motifs — seen through the perspective of a stagnating religious community make it a unique perspective on a too often revisited part of American history.
One of the major problems with the Coens — who still might rank as the greatest modern American filmmakers — is that they hold such little respect for their characters. In pulling from their own Jewish upbringing, yet maintaining that level of disdain, they infuse their film with a generally negative image of American Jews.
A Serious Man is a deeply Jewish film — the press notes that accompanied it even included an extremely useful glossary of Yiddish and Hebrew terms. Paradoxically, the film is so saturated with the religion and culture of American Judaism that it becomes a strong criticism of that community. Unsubtly, the film is ostensibly about the impotence of religion and community in the face of depression and loss. But because it is the Coens, it is also about beating a character up as much as possible within a two-hour running time.
Nobody within Larry’s community can offer him substantial help and many serve as stubborn roadblocks to his progression — which is the joke and the point — but the Coens take these images to an extreme that might come off as anti-Semitic for anyone not in line with their derisive style of writing.
The real triumph of A Serious Man lies in the casting. The Coens pulled numerous members of the Minnesota theater community for bit parts and one-offs. The players use their one or two scenes to create strong impressions of nuanced characters, the best of whom might be George Wyner as a rambling rabbi who — in a reflection of the film itself — imparts on Larry a parable that lacks a message.
At the center of the maelstrom of Midwestern Jewish angst sways Michael Stuhlbarg in a nearly perfect performance as Larry. Stuhlbarg and the Coens effortlessly eschew the traditional character arc for a man under such duress and make Larry far more pitiful and identifiable than would be a man who simply lets the pressure build to a violent explosion in the third act.
After a schedule conflict barred his involvement from the Coens’ last film, Burn After Reading, Roger Deakins returned as cinematographer. His collaboration with the Coens, themselves great auteurs with a broad understanding of classical film, has yielded some of the most beautiful and effectively photographed films of the past 20 years.
The Coens and Deakins have created a world far removed from the epic legends O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men. The film is small and ugly — awash in the drabness that defined America on the eve of revolution. And though the filmmakers seem to ask some ancient and profound questions about the role of God in everyday life, Larry Gopnik’s world is marked by crushing insignificance.
Typical of the Coens — whose films seem so designed to go off the rails by the end — the last scene of A Serious Man lands a sucker punch on par with the masterful final moments of No Country for Old Men. Regardless of the scene’s power, it is ultimately an irreverent moment that effectively strips all meaning from Larry’s progression and from the film’s secular message. As they have done before, the Coens dare us to take them seriously and then mock us for doing so.
A Serious Man combines the best and the worst of the Coen Brothers into a narrative that is both complex and confused. The film might mean to inspire some deeper questions about religion and revolution, but the filmmakers would probably be just as happy if it didn’t. This is not Cormac McCarthy, after all. This is Joel and Ethan Coen, always masters of technique and tone but only occasionally masters of theme.
It would probably be enough for them to know that “Somebody to Love” is still playing in my head two weeks after seeing the film.