The hu­man con­di­tion

The Coens’ lat­est film is a su­perb drama about a cri­sis of the spirit, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

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

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