361) A Serious Man (2009) Dir: Ethan and Joel Coen Date Released: October 2009 Date Seen: October 25, 2009 Rating: 4/5
A Serious Man, the Coen bros. most recent film, simmers with the burning spiritual questions of its frantic agnostic protagonist, physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). Buffeted between his lack of faith and his need to believe that a divine plan exists, Larry is afflicted by almost every mundane problem one can think of and then some. Sarah (Jessica McManus), his dowdy wife, is having an affair with Sy (Fred Melamed), an unbearably warm, er, smug fuddy-duddy; his kids only care for him as far as his wallet extends; his depressed, eccentric of a brother Arthur (Richard Kind!) is still sleeping on his couch; his application for tenure looks iffy; and on, and on.
Accordingly, Larry wants to know why he's being singled out but the only answers he gets are variations on a cryptic truism from medieval French Rabbi Rashi: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." To the Coens, that means Michael has to accept his powerlessness. Any agency he's granted is an illusion and any attempt to re-assert control over his life is going to end in tears, though not necessarily of sadness. As mean-spirited as the film is at heart, A Serious Man is pretty damn funny.
While the Coens are right to dismiss critical responses that dismiss Larry as a modern-day Job--Job was a staunch believer; Larry's never nearly so sure--his quest for answers--his story and the oft-misappropriated Biblical parable are similar in that they both use tangible afflictions as the straws that break their martyrs' respective backs. After all the monumentally terrible, horrible, no-good things Larry puts up with over the course of the film, he's ultimately done in by a few strokes of his #2 pencil. His one insignificant, misguided attempt to take back his life is immediately slapped down from who knows where (Rashem is everywhere, as the film points out time and again).
This is because the comedy of the film comes from the Coens' reliance on material signs of divine power. What you see is what you get and anything else is, ahum, immaterial. Actions define people's worth: Sy is blamelessly unaware that his blustery reassurances are unwelcome but still, the fact that he's offering them so persistently is what makes him a putz and one of Larry's collection of miseries.
Likewise, Larry is only really broken down when he thinks he can take matters into his own hands and dig himself out of the hole he's in. He cannot "Accept the mystery" of life, as one Rabbi puts it, because there are no answers to be found in the world around him, just more questions. Another reason why Larry never had a chance is that he rarely goes out of his way to give other people one. He needs them to come to him for forgiveness--Arthur is the only one that he absolves with a brotherly embrace. He hypocritically believes both Arthur and his wife's claims of innocence sight unseen because they're family. Everybody else sinks or swims on their own.
Still, even knowing that the film's triumphal cynicism is tainted, I can't help but relate all too well to the Coens' insecurity. It's frail and utterly ungenerous but that's what makes it so human.