The Coen Brothers are often accused of being cruel to their characters. Hardly anyone in one of their movies has a chance at a happy ending, and most of the time we are laughing at them, not with them. This went sour with their last venture, “Burn After Reading,” when, after about an hour, I just grew tired of the characters and their relentless antics, and wished they’d go away, or maybe learn something once in a while.
They recover that fragile balance in “A Serious Man,” a movie about Larry Gopnik (played perfectly by Michael Stuhlbarg) a well-meaning Jewish man who seems to be going through the trials of Job. His wife is leaving him for his best friend, who wants to give him a big hug and help them all be reasonable. He’s a physics professor up for tenure, but then a failing student leaves an envelope of money on his desk, and threatens to sue him for extortion if he takes it, and sue him for defamation of character if doesn’t. His daughter seems to be perpetually washing her hair, and his son listens to Jefferson Airplane in Hebrew class.
Through it all, Stuhlbarg tries to maintain his composure, his integrity, and his sanity. He visits rabbi after useless rabbi, one of which advises him to reflect upon the parking lot outside his window. Really he’s looking for permission to be angry, to cry out against the injustice of his life, to shake his fist at heaven and demand an answer from God. All the good Jews around him counsel serenity, resignation, etc. They’ve apparently forgotten about Israel wrestling with Yehovah, as well the many psalms that start out as cries and end in worship.
This is all played, and played well, as dark comedy, and, “No Country for Old Men” aside, dark comedy is what the Coen Brothers do best. The casting here is impeccable and inspired. Actors like Richard Kind and Fred Melamed, who you’ve probably never heard of (oddly enough, I’ll always remember Kind for his role in “A Bug’s Life”) bring more comedy and pathos, and life to their small supporting roles than most A-list actors can manage over the length of a feature film. “A Serious Man” is undeniably brutal; it’s also incredibly funny, and has the aroma of a film that will stay funny through multiple viewings.
And yet it all seems to end up okay. His son sings the Torah at his Bar Mitzvah, and there is a look of true satisfaction on Stuhlbarg’s face. In the midst of uncertainty, tragedy, and the deep mystery of the Man Upstairs, it’s little things like watching your son go through the same rituals of manhood that you and your father and your grandfather went through that keep you going.
Maybe the point of “A Serious Man,” is that, in the bizarre world where Larry Gopnik lives, being serious is an almost fatal flaw. One must have a sense of humor. As my wife likes to say, “you have to laugh – you’d cry your eyes out if you didn’t.” So even if Larry Gopnik can’t seem to laugh at the absurdities of his life, we are invited to. And perhaps through that, we can laugh, vicariously, at the absurdities of our own lives. And while I wish Larry Gopnik had his King Lear moment–this may be the main difference between my worldview and that of the Coen Brothers–I can respect, and enjoy, the small, satisfying moments he does have. I enjoyed “A Serious Man,” both the humor and the philosophy of it, and I’m happy to see the Coen Brothers making movies like this again. It’s the reason why I started loving their movies in the first place.