Oy Vay! Coens Lose Moral Center in A Serious Man

serious man 2 wilson webb Oy Vay! Coens Lose Moral Center in A Serious ManA Serious Man
Running time 105 minutes
Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Michael Stuhlbarg

Growing up going to Hebrew school every day and synagogue every Saturday may not be a prerequisite to overcome the bleak confusion of A Serious Man, but my guess is that it sure would help. This is the new one from the quirky Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, who shift from comedy to drama with uneven results, and work easily with big stars or nobodies. This time it’s the latter (not even a guest appearance by Brad Pitt), as they return to their hometown of Minneapolis in 1967 and the setting of Fargo to tell the depressingly sluggish story of a nebbishy Jew named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), who goes through the perils of Job in the stressed-out weeks before his son’s bar mitzvah. It’s a farce like the dreadful The Big Lebowski, with a confusing and maddeningly unsatisfactory ending like No Country for Old Men. Not one of their best films, but because of its sincerity and the parsing away of sentiment and pretension, it is, in many ways, one of their most likable.

A Serious Man is also one of their most personal. The Coens have never struck me as religious people dedicated to the rudiments of liturgy. (Joel has been married since 1984 to Frances McDormand, who is about as Jewish as Donald O’Connor.) But they know the territory, and appear driven to cynicism about it when anyone mentions the words Talmud or Torah. A lengthy prologue that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie shows a gnarled, impoverished couple in a grim Slavic country that looks like a set from Fiddler on the Roof who open their door in a snowstorm to a neighbor feared to be a dybbuk. The wife stabs him and turns him back out into the cold, inviting a curse that threatens to plague them forever. Cut to the cookie-cutter suburbs of 1960s Minnesota and the endless travails of the Gopnik family.

Larry Gopnik is a math teacher nobody understands, struggling to become a mensch, and failing miserably. His students are bored; his wife divorces him for an aging, bloviated hippie; his pious campus associates pass him by for promotion; his son steals from his wallet and smokes pot in Hebrew school; his daughter can’t get into the only bathroom in the house because his unwelcome, unemployed brother—who is turning into a permanent house guest—always locks himself in to drain his disgusting cysts. Gopnik’s rabbi ignores him; his colleagues patronize him; the deer-hunting redneck next door encroaches on his property to build a boat shed; and the father of an Asian student who bribed him to get a better grade now sues him for defamation. The poor man is rendered homeless and forced to move to a motel. At times, the audience needs the patience of Job to endure the stream of humiliations and torments visited upon Gopnik. The Coens lodge their tongues firmly in their cheeks, addressing the clichés and rituals of Judaism with contemporary skepticism, and equating the complex tenets of the Jewish faith with the problems in Gopnik’s life. Gopnik consults a series of incompetent rabbis (one of them is so obsessed with Jefferson Airplane he substitutes their rock tunes for scripture) who do nothing but complicate his life and give him idiotic advice. Add mortage foreclosures, a wrecked car, footing the bill for his wife’s lover’s funeral and his brother’s arrest for sodomy, and Gopnik is at the end of his rope. Taking stock of what he’s got, he comes up with bubkes. You may need Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish to understand half of the dialogue, but patience pays off. I found the usual moral center in Coen brothers films missing in action, but while I related to practically none of the suffering personally (my Jewish friends call it “the story of my life”), I must admit I laughed out loud.

As Gopnik loses faith and questions the existence of God and the meaning of life, A Serious Man substitutes a comic sense of life’s absurdities for any ethical wisdom grounded in theology, and the movie turns both suicidally sobering and funny as hell, often at the same time. But eventually it falls into the universal Coen brothers abyss—a most unsatisfactory ending that leaves you bewildered and angry. Just when Gopnik’s life is back on the rails and there’s a brief sign of a happy finale, more life-altering calamities come raining down—a hurricane sweeps down on Minnesota and the cancer doctor calls and … but no more spoilers. Clearly the Gopniks are victims of preordained fate, descendants of the crones in the opening scene, and the dybbuk’s curse will go on forever. The Coens never know how to end their movies; remember how the final scene wrecked No Country for Old Men? They always leave you infuriated and dangling. Everyone is just as miserable in the finale as they were in the beginning. A Serious Man may be their most religious film yet, but there is nothing spiritual about it.