The human condition
The Coens’ latest film is a superb drama about a crisis of the spirit, writes Donald Clarke
THE TEMPTATION to arrange the Coen brothers’ films along a spectrum running from “sober” to “zany” is hard to resist. At one sombre extreme you have pictures such as No Country for Old Men and Blood Simple. At the other we find romps such as The Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading.
Confirmation of the futility of this approach arrives with a film that is as poisonously funny as it is defiantly nihilistic. A Serious Man delivers more bad news about the human condition than even No Country managed. Yet it offers as many huge laughs as did Lebowski. If it weren’t so consistently original, A Serious Man might qualify as the quintessential Coens picture.
The film begins with a wonderfully strange prologue, during which an elderly sage – who may be a dybbuk, a malevolent spirit – visits a 19th-century Jewish couple in their humble European shtetl. Students of Yiddish culture may find obscure echoes of this fable throughout the picture, but one stark, uncomplicated lesson remains unavoidable: awful things can (and probably will) happen to even the most ordinary people.
Meet Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). A Minnesota physics professor, Larry begins the film in a state of endurable equilibrium. As events crackle on, however, virtually every corner of his life becomes infested with some class of spiritual pestilence.
Larry’s wife is having an affair with a lugubrious associate, who looks like a combination of Francis Ford Coppola and Allen Ginsberg. Just as Larry seems about to secure university tenure, some maniac begins sending letters to Larry’s bosses viciously slandering him. An Asian student tries to bribe Larry into changing his failing grades. His mildly sociopathic brother is stranded on his couch.
It is 1967, but Larry’s suburb is still every bit as insular as the peasants’ shtetl. The few non-Jews that he and his family meet (a bully who chases his son home; his box-headed, deer-hunting neighbour) appear marinated in barely contained hostility and an unshakeable sense of entitlement. The sense of being on an alien planet is heightened by the directors’ decision to shun movie stars for a company of consistently superb character actors and theatre specialists.
You don’t have to dig too deep into the Coens’ background to appreciate the autobiographical gestures. Yet nobody could confuse A Serious Man with an exercise in nostalgia or a self-pitying misery memoir. Larry’s shruggy, stoned son – very much the same generation as the directors – merely glances off the periphery of the story on his way from the television to his Hebrew school. His most significant contribution to the piece derives from his devotion to The Jefferson Airplane’s lyrically pungent Somebody to Love. “When the truth is found to be lies/And all the joy within you dies.” Well, quite.
No. This is Larry’s story. The Coens are, perhaps, attempting to get past the superficial cinematic depictions of Jewish neurosis to offer us a comprehensive pathological analysis of the condition. But the film does more than that surely. In Larry’s appalled awe at his wife’s vast, disingenuously unctuous lover – confirmed as the serious man of the title – we get a sense of a universal modern insecurity: most everyone has trouble believing in his or her substantiveness.
More that anything, though, A Serious Man is about its own terrible momentum. Shot in translucent earth shades by Roger Deakins, the Coens’ regular cameraman, the picture has the careering, unstoppable propulsion of a French farce. One’s only fear is that, with all this catastrophe building up on the story’s creaking shoulders, Joel and Ethan may not discover any satisfactory way to close their own Book of Job.
Such worries are unfounded. The staggering final shot offers such a perfect distillation of what has gone before (and what is to come) that it becomes impossible to imagine the picture ending any other way. We’ll say no more.
Couples retreat: Michael Stuhlbarg and Sari Lennick in A Serious Man