After twenty-five years of a near flawless track record the Brothers Coen have made their mark with misanthropic violence, midnight black humor, and a sense of wonder. Through their eyes we have glimpsed hyper-real worlds filled with the most interesting characters, films like “Raising Arizona” or “Fargo” might even be referred to as Magical Realism. Their newest film, “A Serious Man,” actually turns out to be their most simple, subdued, and straight forward work. It also might be their most perfect.
The film begins with a prologue of a Jewish man and wife in an era gone by. He was helped on the path home by a Rabbi, who by his wife’s recollection died the previous year. He doesn’t buy it, but when the Rabbi shows up at their door the wife declares him a dyybuk, or evil spirit of Judaic lore. Is the Rabbi a good man or a force of evil? Should he be cast out or given credence? In the man’s eyes this Rabbi, a symbol of Judaism, should be brought in the home and given warmth. The wife, on the other hand stabs this symbol of old myth, tossing him out of the house, thus providing a central question for the entire picture. What role does Judaism, or religion in general, play in the lives of modern people with modern problems?
The film then shifts from the soft, warm nostalgia endued to the image by long time Coen Brothers cohort, Roger Deakins, to a cooler time period, the late 1960’s, where we follow Larry Gopnik, the patriarch of a Minnesota Jewish family, as his life falls apart. Watching Michael Shuhlbarg’s breath taking portrayal of Larry is a revelation of true acting; he possesses Larry like a spirit, they are inseparable.
The brilliant script by Joel & Ethan Coen plays more like a novel than a film. As Larry tries to explain his many problems he turns to the only source that is available to a religious man, God. Unfortunately, as Larry finds out, getting an audience with the Holy One is a lot harder than it might seem.
Larry’s kids don’t respect him, his brother (Richard Kind) is a socially deficient reprobate sleeping on the couch, and is wife (Sari Lennick) wants to leave him for Sy Abelman (Fred Melman). Judging from his last name Sy is a much more proficient at dealing with life than Larry, who along with his troubles at home is having some issues at work where he teaches physics. He is up for tenure though someone keeps sending the decision board letters questioning Larry’s character.
As a man of science Larry is already predestined to rely on secular explanations for his woes, but as one problem after another is heaped onto his plate he has to search for answers in a different place. Time after time he tries to meet with the Senior Rabbi of his community, Rabbi Marshak, but can only get in to see the two juniors, Scott and Nachtner.
Both Junior Rabbis’ advice are little more than strange parables that provide more questions than answers, though Nachtner (played to perfection by long time TV actor George Wyner) tells an amazing and funny story about a dentist who finds a “message” inscribed in a Goy’s teeth that is truly inspired. The parables of both Rabbis bring forth the conundrum of religion: it can be nothing more than questions, for the only true answer, in most religions, is faith. If you are looking for anything set in stone there might be some tablets with some rules sitting around somewhere, but other than that you better just jump in head first and hope for the best.
What role then does religion play in the life of modern man? In “A Serious Man” it can both bring people together, as it does through Danny Gopnik’s (Aaron Wolf) bar mitzvah. As his son becomes a man, and member of the Jewish community, Larry attains some peace and happiness, and the good nature invoked by the event helps him get tenure. But that same religion can push people apart as it does with Larry and his neighbor, Dick (Warren Keith). Larry sees anti-semitism in the “Goy” who lives next door, but while he is unfriendly, there is never a moment where Dick is outwardly anti-semetic. In fact the only one who makes overt judgement of the other is Larry.
Like his father’s success when giving into the comfort of the religion, so does Danny win out when he finally accepts some measure of “Hashem,” or God into his life. After getting through his stoned reading of the Torah Danny is accepted by Marsham who rewards the boy, now man, with some true wisdom – the lyrics to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies, Don’t you want somebody to love?” All of Larry’s education, and knowledge is no use to him, everything breaks down inside of him, but what is left? He does want “Someone” to love, but does his religion serve him in the end? Not really. As he finds that solace in the ceremony of his child’s manhood that is it – comfort. He still has his problems, in fact there are worse ones on the horizon, and how, if at all will Larry deal with them?
El Luchador Rating: 5 out of 5
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)