A Serious Man (2009, Joel & Ethan Coen)
It seems there’s always a caveat to a Coen brothers movie, however excellent some of its attributes may be. Either its story trails off into nonsensical half-baked rambling (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski) or its hateful mockery of “common” people grows suffocating (Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?). So many of their prior films came close to brilliance, but No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man are the first two since The Hudsucker Proxy never to flag in their strength and ambition. Both work all the way through — and are almost certainly their best films to date.
In the case of A Serious Man, it helps that this is one of their smallest productions, a suburban tale that requires — for all its surrealism — few of the flights of fancy and oversized hubris that marked most of the Coens’ 2000s output. Despite grand themes, the scope of the story is tiny — drawing parallels between a Jewish college professor in 1967 as his life falls apart due to a pending divorce, a risk of lost tenure, and a feeling of death closing in; and his son, whose lament is on a much smaller scale. His radio headset’s been taken away and he schemes to get it back in the week before his bar mitzvah. That’s the extent of it, really; a lot of quiet, subtle humor and a strangely idle apocalyptic dimension simultaneously evocative and critical of the American Beauty breed of suburban angst films.
The most welcome departure from everything one might expect A Serious Man to entail is its game surrealism, tempering the film’s sense of doom on the horizon (which becomes literal at the finale) — with so many interpreting lead character Larry Gopnik (enthusiastically served up by stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg) as a modern Job failing his test of faith, it’s tempting to gaze upon A Serious Man‘s comic absurdity as a mask covering a mournful Old Testament parable of a vengeful God. It seems equally likely, though, that the film is thematically concerned with God’s silence — a trip to three successive rabbis reveals nothing except the emptiness of bubblegum or deep philosophies in the face of a crisis (look at that parking lot), the grand secret statement given to the stoned Mitzvah child is nothing more than a rundown of the members of Jefferson Airplane — and suggests a conflation of religion and privilege that has not often been examined in American films. At the conclusion, we must consider the implication that Larry’s supposed insurmountable problems had nothing on the loss of life itself, that recovering a headset and $20 means little when a tornado approaches. My dad used to tell me when I was worried about something to ask “can it kill me?” and if the answer was no, to try to relax a little. Stop fixating on details so much, engravings in teeth and who left that money here.
But he also died young, and maybe that’s one reason the ending is so haunting for me; I had believed that No Country for Old Men could considerably hold the title of the greatest ending in a major Hollywood film for many years to come. I’m not sure A Serious Man qualifies as a major Hollywood film, but assuming it does, the final scenes and last shot in particular gave me a cold chill and reframe the entire narrative; in a matter of seconds, this movie gives you more to consider theologically and emotionally than Million Dollar Baby did in a couple of hours. You start to wonder what matters, whether anything is finally worth the precious time we spend fretting about it, whether anything is finally significant except the large things that take our consciousness over if we let them.
Up to that moment, the film’s a winner anyway, its awkward and offbeat beauty scoring on the strength of its good writing and excellent performances. We’ve neglected to mention Richard Kind as Gopnik’s hapless brother, some sort of a genius who’s sleeping on the family’s couch and pissing away his money on gambling, a character the Coens give an effective ring of funny but tragic reality. Sy Ableman, the overly friendly romantic successor to Larry, is given an obliquely masterful read by Fred Melamed (memorable from his smug parts in various Woody Allen films); and the young Aaron Wolff illustrates perfectly the unspoken, buried anxiety of adolescence as young Danny… always seen running away from some shadowy figure, never quite seeming to get out from under its weight, and never learning the lesson that losing his headphones should teach him any more than his father learns the lesson that having a job and family should’ve taught him from the beginning.