A Serious Man

I watched the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man again yesterday, on a whim.  I think this is a near-perfect movie, almost as good as No Country For Old Men.  First of all, Michael Stuhlbarg is fucking fantastic in this lead role; I can see critics accusing his performance as being little more than an accumulation of quirks, but I think he brings real humanity, fear, and desperation to the part.  (Plus, after watching him as the ruthless Arnold Rothstein in this season of Boardwalk Empire, it’s really fun to see him use some of the same tricks as a cold-blooded tyrant as well as the exact opposite) Another easy snipe: that almost every character outside of Stuhlbarg’s Lawrence Gopnik is comically one-dimensional.  They serve their specific purpose in disturbing Gopnik’s life and otherwise stay out of the way.  A fair amount of screentime is devoted to his son but there seems to be little else going on in his head other than a desire to get high, watch “F-Troop,” and not get his ass pounded by weed dealer Fagel.

But I would see such criticism as missing the point.  This is less a movie about showing the way characters interact and more about constructing a very specific worldview.  And it does this in a way unlike almost any other movie I’ve ever seen.  Scenes aren’t really allowed to be scenes…conversations are often cut off midway in order to underscore the absurdity of some comment.  But all of these little vignettes accumulate into a vision of human existence that is both profound and highly unsettling.

This worldview is represented within the movie by “The Mentaculus”, which is a “probability map of the universe” (i.e. explanation of God’s logic) that Larry’s socially inept, hapless, and probably insane brother Arthur is working on.  Arthur is constantly scribbling away in his Mentaculus notebook, and at one point Larry gets a chance to take a peek.  The contents are baffling, weirdly creepy, and more mystical than mathematical:

*Some spoilers will probably follow*

Larry has been struggling throughout the movie with an unending series of attacks from all sides on the order of his life.  And the cause of most of his pain is not these problems themselves, but his difficulty in understanding their meaning, and wondering what kind of capricious deity would punish him so (the most-repeated lines in the movie are “What is going on?!” and “I didn’t do anything!”).  He is constantly urged to seek the advice of his rabbis but their words are basically useless.

Larry is a good Jew but is also a physicist and his ambivalence about faith is obvious.  The inscrutable diagrams of the Mentaculus seem to confirm what Larry has feared: that there is an order to the universe, but it is completely indecipherable and more than a little bit terrifying.  In movies like this (and TV shows like Lost, The Wire, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, in which philosophical outlook is central), the ending is extremely important: its hope, dread, or ambivalence will tell us what the directors want us to feel about the world.  Here, we watch Larry denegrate himself morally for the first time in the movie (I’m choosing to exclude him smoking pot with his saucy neighbor), erasing the failing grade of a student who has unsuccessfully attempted to bribe him throughout the movie.  We root for him momentarily, happy that he is finally starting to bend the rules rather than play by the impossible and unreasonable ones that have been set for him.  But as soon as his pencil has made the mark, the phone rings–HaShem?–and it’s his doctor soberly saying that Larry needs to come into the office to discuss some x-ray results.  Without finding out what’s wrong with Larry, we cut to a scene of his son and his fellow Hebrew school students watching as a tornado ominously approaches their school.  Then, that’s it.  Pretty dark.  It seems the Mentaculus, or at least Larry’s impression of it, may have been right.

Perhaps, as a goy, I should feel less comfortable with A Serious Man‘s harsh criticism of the Jewish faith; as I said, the rabbis are comically unsuited to help Larry with his problems, and the best thing the immeasurably wise Rabbi Marshak can muster for Larry’s son after his Bar Mitzvah is to recite some fucking Jefferson Airplane lyrics and tell him to “be a good boy.”  I’m unsure whether the old-timey opening scene works or not, and though it feels a bit too tangential to the movie, one thing is sure: it situates us in a world in which Jews are painted as a deeply superstitious and conflicted people. But somehow the Coen Bros. make these criticisms hilarious and profound in a way that I can get on board without feeling like a complete ass.

Anyway, I need to get back to my finals week homework, but I was too entranced by this movie not to write about it.  If you haven’t seen it, do so as soon as you can.  And let me know if you agree with my reading of it.



~ by toren on December 6, 2010.

One Response to “A Serious Man”

  1. Perhaps, as a goy, I should feel less comfortable with A Serious Man‘s harsh criticism of the Jewish faith

    Or perhaps not?

    This is a movie that needs repeat watching to comprehend the many layers of buried meanings, tokens and symbols. To be a goy and not understand the nuances of the Yiddish, Hebrew and Yiddishized English sections is truly a handicap. Such a thing. Such a thing.

    But then again, as a goy, you can approach the parking lot, not with tired eyes, but with a fresh perspective and wonder if the Jew-noir rabbi was right after all? Is it really god who appears in the parking lot at the end or is it a mere manifestation of uncertain physics?

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