After garnering huge commercial and mainstream critical success in No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers turn again to a much more personal and intimate subject in A Serious Man. To do or not do, that is the question! Do you take action and what is the consequence of your actions? Does it matter if the actions are righteous or not?
The film starts with a man coming home after battling a snow storm, to tell his wife about a neighbor, Reb, who helped him fix his cart. The wife is shocked as she says Reb died a while ago. Then there is a knock on the door and Reb shows up, invited to share the soup. The wife says he is now dybbuk (one of the undead) and in a shockingly sudden act she pierces him through the heart with an ice-pick. Reb staggers out and we never find out if he was really dead before or not. BUT if he was a dybbuk, he is gone.
In a seemingly unrelated tale, that of Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), a math professor, we see the life of a man mired in INACTION. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is about to leave him for Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed), his daughter is stealing his money so she can get a nose job, his teenage son is listening to Jefferson Airplane during Hebrew School, has signed on to the infamous Columbia records deal where you have to do NOTHING to keep getting records, and is in debt for pot he has bought from the school bully. Larry frenetically covers the chalkboard with formulae in class and discusses proofs of uncertainty and Schrodinger’s Cat while still doing nothing about his life. A student tries to bribe him for a passing grade so he can keep his scholarship, the tenure committee evaluating his case is getting anonymous letters filled with hate against Larry, and his brother may be involved in a gambling and sex solicitation racket! At home a seductive neighbor on one side, and an aggressive neighbor on the other, box Larry in. Sy Abelman seems more pained by Larry’s life falling apart than Larry himself. The Rabbi chain of command takes him through increasing levels of seemingly inane platitudes without being of any real help to him. And to top it all, Larry is running out of money. Even Larry’s dreams start out as fantasies that turn into nightmares.
Finally Larry decides that he will do something. In sharp contrast to the decisive action to kill the dybbuk, Larry will tackle his demons by acting to change the grade for Clive so he can use the bribe money! He slowly erases the failing grade and changes it to a C. After the Bar Mitzvah, his son has promised the Rabbi that he will be a good boy, but is back to listening to Jefferson Airplane in class. A surprising morality tale ending shows us Larry getting a phone call from his doctor asking him to come in immediately to discuss his X-ray results. At the same time a cyclone is about to hit the school as the kids, including Larry’s son, watch agape while the teacher fumbles and never manages to find the keys to the storm shelter.
Is this a film about God and how mortals can relate to him? Or is it saying thinking about God is futile. Like all great filmmakers, the Coen brothers only give us questions and not answers. The Junior Rabbi tells Larry to think of the parking lot, as in to look at things from a different perspective or point of view. The second-in-command Rabbi tells him that just as we go to a dentist when we have a toothache, thus we think of God in troubled times, and forget him after. We always question his intention, but maybe there is none. Finally the head Rabbi talks in his reedy voice to the son after his Bar Mitvah and says (Paraphrasing Jefferson Airplane) – “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the HOPE (not joy, as per JA) within you dies —— BE A GOOD BOY!”
Beautifully crafted and full of nuances and humor (like all Coen brothers’ films), this one is one of the less accessible movies by the directing duo. It seems deeply personal and full of guilt (something we have seen Woody Allen do so perfectly over and over again), and yet it is also a bit frustrating to watch. The acting is pitch perfect and Stahlberg is excellent as the beleaguered and misfortune stricken Larry. The unctuous Sy Abelman is played as a cross between a Psychotherapist and Insurance salesman by Fred Melamed.
I suspect I could have extracted much more from this film if I watched it again. But it does not beguile as much as other films from the Coen Brothers so I will have to wait to revisit it.