Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen give the impression of having mixed feelings about cerebral pursuits. One of their most unforgettable images comes at the climax of Barton Fink, when John Goodman hefts a shotgun, barrels down a combustible hotel corridor and bellows, “LOOK UPON ME! I’LL SHOW YOU THE LIFE OF THE MIND!”
Audiences might duck behind their theater seats after learning that the Coens take another look at the life of the mind with A Serious Man. Their latest head-spinner finds cinema’s most renowned brother act at the height of their creative powers for their first venture into their own childhoods. A Serious Man could be the opposite side of the coin flipped by Javier Bardem’s hitman in their Oscar-winner No Country For Old Men. The Southwestern crime drama depicted men of action at odds in a stark, uncaring landscape, while A Serious Man’s seriocomic parable presents thoughtful, scholarly figures being pranked by an equally indifferent universe.
A Serious Man offers a sharply different kind of story than the Coens' usual deconstructions of screwball comedy or film noir. The film harks back to Minneapolis’ suburbs where the brothers grew up: Older brother Joel would have been bar mitzvah age in the film’s year, 1967. At 13 years old, Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolf) could be their surrogate self as he attends Hebrew school, studies for his bar mitzvah, and furtively smokes pot with his foul-mouthed pals. Not since Blue Velvet have American-lawns looked so sinister. The film builds tension simply by tracking across the flattened-looking tract houses and the strapping, hostile goyim next door.
Neither a bitter nor a nostalgic coming-of-age tale, A Serious Man primarily considers the personal disintegration of Danny’s father, Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg), who teaches physics at a small college. (Incidentally, the Coens’ parents were both professors.) “I didn’t do anything!” Larry repeatedly protests when his life starts going sideways, underlying that he’s the opposite of a man of action. At school, he worries that anonymous accusations and attempted bribery could de-rail his bid for tenure.
Larry's home life proves even worse. His ingenious but addle-minded brother (“Mad About You’s” Richard Kind) proves a perpetual houseguest and monopolizes the bathroom to drain a cyst. He’s even more number-obsessed than Larry, forever scribbling labyrinthine equations that could explain the universe. Most distressing of all, Larry’s shrewish wife (Sari Lennick) demands a ritual Jewish divorce so she can wed widower Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed). In a modest, middle-class way, Larry faces Job-like trials.
Stuhlbarg plays Larry as a whey-faced, increasingly desperate schlemiel. His nebbish characterization is approximately two parts Woody Allen and three parts Matthew Broderick. Stuhlbarg milks the role neither for laughs nor sympathy, keeping the audience at arm’s length. One suspects the Coens cast him because, as such a cinematic unknown, he has no glamour outside A Serious Man. Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman frequently play similarly besieged losers, but still bring cachet as Oscar-caliber actors.
Larry’s problems and pressures push him not just to the brink of nervous breakdown, but to a crisis in the religious matters he’s never truly contemplated. The film’s themes satisfyingly draw together with Larry’s Kafka-esque search for spiritual answers. He seeks counsel from his community’s religious leaders — meetings preceded by faux-portentous titles such as “The First Rabbi” and booming sound effects — but their advice proves hilariously inadequate. Larry craves a word from wise, wizened, perpetually unavailable Rabbi Marshak, but the audience doesn’t get its hopes up.
Larry and the rest of the film's Jewish characters come across as half-assimilated Americans only gradually partaking of 1960s counterculture. They practically smuggle the new freedoms into their community, like the way Danny listens to Jefferson Airplane through the earpiece of his transistor radio, or Larry catches a beguiling glimpse of a nude, pot-smoking neighbor.
Most of A Serious Man's Jewish characters seem profoundly unserious, like a tribe of aging hulks and sexless soup-slurpers in unflattering glasses. Clearly the Coens don’t fear being branded as “self-loathing Jews.” Perhaps the high level of caricature emulates the distorted perspectives of their tween years, or maybe they fear that if the roles seem more naturalistic and dignified, they’d have more agency and seem less adrift in a meaningless world.
At any rate, the exaggerations invite the robust comic character portrayals in which the Coens specialize. Melamed’s Sy Abelman imposes on Larry with his bearish bulk and soothing, hypnotic voice. Adam Arkin, as Gopnik’s lawyer, can barely disguise knee-jerk pessimism with every development. George Wyner, one of those character actors you’ve seen on practically every TV show ever made, delivers the engrossing tale of “the Goy’s teeth,” in which a Jewish dentist finds an Hebraic message in an impossible location. Scored by Jimi Hendrix, the engrossing anecdote will fire nearly as much discussion as the film’s prologue at a 19th-century shtetl and its final shot of elemental power.
Like Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, A Serious Man evokes the Kabbalah in drawing parallels between Torah studies and mathematical proofs. Significant letters and numbers seem encoded in the film: At one point the brothers sit by a pool and obscure the “NO DIVING” warning, so it says “NO DIV.” Could the Coens be signaling that there’s no divinity that shapes our ends? A Serious Man offers plenty to obsess over while suggesting the impossibility of comprehending life, God or the mathematical order of the universe. Take the mitzvahs life offers without question, because the tsuris can always get worse, and the only grace might be Grace Slick.
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