Joel and Ethan Coen have never been known for their cheeriness, yet the bleakness of A Serious Man still comes as a shock.
Usually the Coen brothers depict despair from afar – they sprinkle it on their helpless, moronic characters, to both their and our derisive delight. But here, despair drips from the screen, oozing onto the audience and – one suspects, given the movie’s ominous non-ending of an ending – even soiling the spirits of the filmmakers.
Set in 1960s Minnesota, A Serious Man centers on Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish physics professor beset by personal turmoil. His wife wants to leave him. His children are indifferent to him. His chances of tenure are looking slim. (Reviewers have been comparing him to Job of the Old Testament, but Job had it a lot worse than this.)
A Serious Man is the most personal of the Coens’ films – they too grew up in a Jewish academic family in 1960s Minnesota – yet it is hardly affectionate. Religious traditions are depicted as silly and worthless, while family life consists of a series of humiliations. The few nods of nostalgia are given to Jefferson Airplane and smoking pot.
Then there are the people. Even in the unflattering Coen canon, in which the cuddliest figure is Jeff Bridges’ Big Lebowski burnout, the characters here register as particularly appalling grotesques. Physically, they’re defined by excessive ear hair or sebaceous cysts; in terms of behavior, they can be even more repellent. From his dismissive wife to his condescending colleagues, nearly everyone treats Larry as if he was a burden they can’t wait to unload.
And Larry takes it. Stuhlbarg, a relatively unknown actor, gives a performance that consists almost entirely of resigned grimaces, sad shrugs and tightly pursed lips. You keep waiting for the guy to explode, but he never does. When he finally blurts out to a rabbi what most of us have been thinking all along – “Why does (God) make us feel the questions if he isn’t going to give us the answers?” – Larry barely raises his timid, squeaky voice.
That line, by the way, may be the most direct piece of dialogue ever uttered in a Coen brothers picture. The Coens have always been inscrutable – if you want to watch a film critic squirm, ask them what Fargo means – yet A Serious Man’s message is clear. Life is full of meaningless suffering. We will never understand why. Don’t bother asking God for help. And whatever you do, don’t make Him mad.
Sheesh. I think I liked it better when I couldn’t figure out what the Coens’ movies meant.