Taking It Seriously
The Coen brothers’ new movie is a masterful meditation on Judaism
As the Coen brothers chose to open their monumental new film, A Serious Man, with a lengthy fable, I’ll begin this review with a fable of my own.
There once was a Jew who felt his life was spiraling out of control. He had done some things he was certain were sinful, and found it increasingly difficult to quell his conscience. After a few sleepless nights, he decided to go see the rabbi and ask for his advice. On his way to the rabbi’s study, however, the man’s stomach began turning: there was no way, he realized, that he could bring himself to confess all of his shameful deeds to the pious, aged reb. And so, just a few yards away from the rabbi’s door, the man finally found a solution. He went in, shook the rabbi’s hand, and began talking.
“Rabbi,” he said, “I’m here on behalf of a close friend of mine. You see, this friend is a terrible sinner, and he’s done many awful things, but he couldn’t bring himself to come and confess to you and he asked me to go in his stead.” Feeling secure in his ruse, the man then proceeded to speak at length and in detail about all of his questionable behaviors.
A few minutes later, when the man was finally done talking, the rabbi nodded his head gently and smiled. “What a fool is your friend!” he cried out. “All he needed to do was come see me and tell me he was speaking on your behalf.”
The rabbi wasn’t being cute. He understood that the man, by way of his conceptual trickery, has found a way to live both inside and outside the boundaries of his own consciousness, to be himself and not himself at the same time. A few centuries later, quantum physicists would give a similar principle the name complementarity, and acknowledge that it was entirely possible for things that intuitively seem antithetical to each other to coexist without much conflict.
In theory, Larry Gopnik, the Coen’s new protagonist, portrayed with rare gentility by Michael Stuhlbarg, should understand such principles well. When we see him at work, teaching physics at a Midwestern college in the late 1960s, he’s scribbling interminable equations on an enormous blackboard and droning on about Schrödinger’s Cat, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and other staples of quantum mechanics. But when his marriage collapses, his career begins to careen out of control, and a swarm of other niggling concerns descend on him with alarming proximity, Gopnik has little use for modern abstractions. What he needs is an answer, clear and definitive, to the question “why me.” Looking at Stuhlbarg’s restless brown eyes—they press themselves against the thick lenses of his glasses like fish contemplating an escape from their tank—one could easily be tempted to believe it’s the only question that has ever truly mattered to mankind.
As is the case with existential conundrums of this magnitude, the very act of pondering could get tricky, for character and audience alike. If drama, as Alfred Hitchcock neatly put it, is life with the dull bits left out, metaphysical musings—the kind involving God, the universe, and our reasons for being—can too often seem like the dull bits with the rest of life left out. What unfurls on the screen lacks a particularly defined plot, any semblance of character development, or any of the other tropes that constitute cinema as we know it. Which, of course, has sent some critics reeling: the film, they argued, was too bleak, the protagonists too stereotypical, the narrative too lackluster. A viewer about to see A Serious Man would do well to ignore these voices and, like Gopnik, get ready for some serious grappling.
And grappling is what the film is about. The plot, or whatever little of it matters, is is concerned less with Gopnik’s questions and more with those he entrusts with answering it. The hapless physicist seeks the advice of several rabbis. It would betray much of the film’s considerable charm and dramatic tension to disclose just what each one says, but it comes as no surprise that a definitive, convincing, elegant explanation of God’s plan for the universe fails to materialize.
What Gopnik gets instead are platitudes about perception, empty praise, and repeated exhortations to soldier on with life even as it makes less and less sense. The exhorters include not only rabbis but also lawyers, colleagues, neighbors, family members, and friends, all of whom offer Gopnik a measure of assurance—some fake, some sincere—taken largely from modern society’s infinite supply of certainty. A real estate-minded esquire, for example, promises to resolve a dispute over yardage with precise measurements, and a fellow professor blurts out awkward reassurances about Gopnik’s ongoing quest for tenure. Even the sultry next-door neighbor—who tans in the nude and speaks with that deflated, matter-of-fact voice common to the incurably bored—sounds more like a physician than like a temptress when she offers Gopnik a touch of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.
All these individuals fail the film’s sweet, suffering hero because their very outlook—the outlook of the upwardly mobile middle class that trusts that everything can be measured and understood—is inherently ill-suited to exploring the far more elusive and infinitely more profound terrain with which Gopnik is concerned. They may know the law or the science or the culture, but he’s interested in the Meaning of Life. In many ways, Gopnik is like the cat in Schrödinger’s box, whose condition is entirely unknowable for the duration of the experiment.
Lesser artists might have used this weighty premise as the backdrop for a modest character study, or, at the very best, engaged in Charlie Kauffman-style metaphysical mindbenders. But the Coens, serious men, came into this film curious about the very same questions Gopnik hurls at his conversationalists. They want to know why. And, like Gopnik, they’re not afraid to ask.
This intellectual ferocity makes A Serious Man a very rare film. More than the tale of Gopnik and his petty woes, it tells another, far more universal story. In short, here it is: once upon a time, there was a people, the Jews, whose faithful sons and daughters lived in small shtetls and spoke Yiddish and realized that certain phenomena lay past the realms of their understanding and accepted that God moved about in the world in ways they couldn’t possibly know. When members of this nation immigrated to the New World, however, and shaved off their beards and shook off their mamaloshen, their mother tongue, they quickly became besotted with the promises of modernity. They were urged to replace the yearnings for Olam Ha-ba, the messianic and redemptive world to come, with lust for the trappings of Olam Ha-ze, the earthly realm in which we live. They exchanged the Talmud for the law book, the medical text, the tax code. Even when they pursued theological studies, they did so with deference to the principles of the Enlightenment that had emancipated them. And, like other sons and daughters of the Enlightenment, they embarked on the pursuit of the precise, devoting their lives to erecting strict systems of thought that sought to explain life in all of its infinitesimal detail. This transformation came with its rich rewards, but it also exacted a devastating price, chief among which was the loss of the ability—to paraphrase a quote by Rashi the Coens use as an epigraph—to receive with simplicity everything that happens.
Simplicity is the enemy of modernity. So is doubt. Modernity—in its American strand, at least—requires of its practitioners a growing specialization, an increased sophistication, a neverending striving towards certainty. It is, in other words, the very opposite of the Talmudic undertaking, in which the argument itself is the central pursuit and a finite truth, should it ever materialize, is of little concern. When Jews rid themselves of the Talmud, the ars gratia artis, the scholarly license to see the world for all of its competing and contrasting strands, and when they immerse themselves instead in the target-oriented, painfully concrete, and intolerably specific modern world, then, the Coens tell us, they’re in deep spiritual trouble.
Wherein, then, lies salvation? For that, the Coens suggest, we should turn to Danny, Gopnik’s teenage son, whose Bar Mitzvah is one of the film’s funniest and most poignant narrative threads. A stoner who is obsessed with trashy television shows and rock music, he, too, is searching for enlightenment. But whereas the father looks up to the guardians of an ossified religious establishment, thoughtless and irrelevant, the son looks to popular culture, as whirling and as potent as a tornado. When, in the film’s final scene, Danny finds himself face-to-face with an actual storm, with Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” screaming on the soundtrack, one feels an odd sense of purity: the tremendous spirit of the Jews won’t die, but will be reborn in a new generation of seekers, far less traditional than their ancestors but equally as capable of transcendence.
That the film is a vaguely autobiographical account of the Coens’ own childhood, and that Danny—celebrating his 13th birthday in 1967—is the exact same age as Joel Coen was that year, is no coincidence. Even as they remain as reticent as ever to talk about the meaning of their work, it is hard not to see the film as the brothers’ cri de coeur. The movie’s eponymous serious man, after all, isn’t Gopnik, but the tartly named Sy Ableman, the lover of Gopnik’s wife and a man whose every becalmed baritone pronouncement betrays the lust and greed lurking just below the surface. For his pretense, Ableman is revered by his community and enjoys the kind of virile and accomplished life Gopnik père is too timorous to imagine. But in the Coens’ moral and intellectual universe, it’s the junior Gopnik who shall inherit the earth, even if, for the time being, he experiences it through eyes reddened by marijuana smoke and ears cracked by Grace Slick’s howling.
That the reefer mad youths grew up to be filmmakers, and that they produced a masterpiece as profound as A Serious Man, should surprise no one who’s been paying attention to the film. If there’s anything that quantum mechanics and Judaism both teach us it’s that the exact path of anything can never be exactly determined. With some luck, the same would apply to the film itself, and this philosophical and theological gem—unadorned by famous actors and strongly rooted in the fertile soil of American Jewish communal and religious life—will receive the consideration and admiration it so richly deserves. As for us Jews, all we need in order to renew our spiritual thrust, to reconcile the ancient and the modern, and to understand our place in the world are a few serious men.