When I think of the Coen brothers, I think of their movie Miller’s Crossing. More specifically, I think of the scene at the end of Miller’s Crossing, when John Turturro begs Gabriel Byrne to “Look in your heart!” and Bryne replies, “What heart?” before shooting him. That, to me, is quintessential Coen: witty, achingly clever, and heartless. If there’s a line where unsentimental becomes schadenfreude, every Coen brothers movie ignores the delineation. Their new effort – A Serious Man – is a comedy of torture. A nebbish physics professor asks the meaning of his existence, and the movie answers him the way Gabriel Byrne answered John Turturro.
After a prologue where a well-meaning Jew invites disaster into his house, we meet Larry Gopnik; a well-meaning Jew who only seeks tenure. Larry is a good, God-fearing man with some serious problems. First, his wife wants a divorce. Second, he’s being blackmailed. Third, he feels forsaken by God. Larry also has a no-good, gambling addict brother and two bratty kids to worry about, but it’s the “forsaken by God”-thing which rankles him the most. In search of answers, Larry turns to three rabbis. But they offer him thin advice. So it seems it’s up to Larry to deal with his problems; if he has real problems; if all problems aren’t a screen from death.
Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Larry, has the default expression of a man in trouble (the look you get when you’re on a rope bridge and you hear a “snap”). Despite this, he’s a likeable person. Stuhlbarg never seems stupid or gullible as various shitheels exploit him, which is why he maintains our sympathy even when he stubbornly refuses to get mad. His misfortune is to be in a Coen brothers’ movie. Anywhere else he’d be shown mercy. But the Coens – like Flannery O’Connor – aren’t big on giving nice people their reward. They’d rather show us how cruel, how arbitrary, life is. Stuhlberg’s eyebrows have more chance of pardoning him than the script.
The three rabbis Larry encounters are, in order: naïve, indifferent and inscrutable. The first tells him his problems are all about perspective. “Look at the parking lot!” he tells Larry. It certainly seems to make the first rabbi happy. The second rabbi tells Larry a long involved story about a Jewish dentist and a goy’s teeth. In the story, the dentist finds the words “Help me! Save me!” inscribed where only a dentist could ever read them. It could be a message from God; the revelation of a profound truth. But the second rabbi assures Larry that the moral of the story is to ignore profundity. The last rabbi, Larry only sees through a crack in the door to the rabbi’s office. This man offers no advice. He’s only a presence. For Larry, this last encounter is perhaps the truest expression of his religious faith.
Keep track of Larry’s son in this movie. I’m convinced he’s Larry mark 2. We first meet him listening to Grace Slick in his yeshiva class, then what’s dearest to him in the whole world (his transistor radio) is taken from him, then he’s bullied relentlessly, then a tornado touches down about twelve feet from where he’s stood. As played by Aaron Wolff, he’s a slack-jawed weenie with a fondness for pot (much like his dad). He’s also deeply concerned with Jewish tradition even though he doesn’t understand a word of it. Stoned out of his gourd on the day of his bar mitzvah, he sees absurdity all around him, but any meaning to the ceremony is lost.
Be happy you have problems is the moral of Larry’s story. If you want an explanation for the last shot of A Serious Man (and you will), here it is: death ends all problems. There’s a lot from the Book of Job in this movie. Job (as you’ll recall) is the one where a pious man is tested by God. After all his travails, when Job’s wife tells him to “curse God and die”, Job says to his wife, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God and shall we not receive evil?” For a good Jew, Larry is somewhat remiss in forgetting that verse. The reason the Coens are inspired by it is obvious: Job is Larry. He’s every man in every Coen brothers movie. The question is: does God laugh at Job?