Tuesday, April 20, 2010
A Serious Man
The Coen brothers' latest film, A Serious Man, is one of the duo's most challenging and confounding works — challenging in the sense that it continually defies interpretation, and perhaps even suggests that interpretation, the search for answers, is somewhat beside the point. The central character here is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor whose life is beginning to fall apart around him. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) abruptly announces that she wants a divorce, that she's going to marry their friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) instead, and that maybe Larry should move out. So he does. Larry's also hounded by his brother Arthur (Richard Kind), an obviously damaged man whose medical problems keep him in the bathroom for hours at a time, and who's devising a complicated mathematical system that he winds up using to win at gambling. At school, Larry's confronted by students who just don't understand his complicated mathematical "proofs" for physics concepts, and one student, Clive (David Kang), protests his failure and possibly offers up a bribe, though he both denies and confirms it when Larry confronts him.
Larry is a hapless man, a Job figure whose trials are fairly mundane: a mooching brother, an unfaithful wife, stress over the school's impending ruling on whether he gets tenure or not, petty conflicts with neighbors, bickering kids. He doesn't understand why he's being so tormented, why he has this increasing sense that life isn't something he lives so much as something that's happening to him. He gets wrapped up in the quest for answers, both about the big questions and the little things, but everyone keeps telling him not to try so hard. When he complains to his wife that their neighbor has been mowing part of their lawn, she spits back, with obvious annoyance, "does it matter?" Everyone keeps telling Larry: his concerns don't matter, he should relax, take things as they come, stop worrying so much.
Naturally, Larry turns to religion in order to understand his plight, moving up through the hierarchy of rabbis at his temple. The young Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg) has little to offer besides meaningless platitudes, and he noticeably stammers to a halt when Larry reveals the full extent of the trials facing him. The inexperienced rabbi's enthusiasm melts when confronted with someone who really has problems bigger than a petty marital spat. The ancient Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell), on the other hand, won't even see people anymore; he simply sits silently in his study, surrounded by clutter and knick-knacks (the accumulated weight of history and tradition?) and, according to his secretary, is busy thinking. This leaves only Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner) for Larry to get any advice from, and it initially seems like Nachtner is going to deliver. In one of the film's best and funniest sequences, he launches into an elaborate and mystical anecdote about a dentist who discovers a message, in Hebrew letters, on the insides of the teeth of a goy patient. The dentist is understandably shaken and is desperate to find answers, to know who put the letters there and why. The dentist thinks that maybe God is trying to tell him something, and for weeks he can't sleep, can't eat, can't stop thinking about what this all might mean.
This all builds up to a crescendo as the dentist comes to visit Nachtner, asking for advice much as Larry is. Larry is on the edge of his seat, eager for answers, and the brilliance of the sequence is that the audience has been placed in the same position as Larry: mystified, enthralled, eager to understand, to hear what wisdom Nachtner has to offer. So the dentist comes to visit the rabbi and... that's it. Nachtner stops, takes a sip of tea, and seems to think the story is over. And when Larry pushes him for more, Nachtner shrugs, says that he told the dentist not to worry about it, that no one understands anything, and that the dentist eventually forgot all about the strange incident and went back to living his life as though nothing had happened. This is supremely unsatisfying, but then that seems to be what the Coens are suggesting: life is unsatisfying, at least if you're looking for definitive answers and tidy resolutions, which are in short supply. Moreover, religion is unsatisfying, only fulfilling its role as a security blanket for those willing to take its vague assurances and pat answers at face value. That's not enough for Larry, who wants to know the truth, who wants to understand why things happen, why he feels so cursed.
This impulse is of course at the heart of Larry's profession; as a physics professor, he seeks to understand the universe, to code the workings of everything into complex mathematical problems that supposedly prove one thing or another. Throughout the film, Larry sees only the details, never the big picture, and the Coens highlight this by showing him crouched at his blackboard, scribbling equations in chalk. His explanations to his befuddled class are laughable: "This is this, so we can do that," he says as he scrawls letters and numbers and square root symbols across the board. As though that explains anything. These closeups of Larry at work eventually give way, at a pivotal moment, to a pullback into a wide shot, revealing Larry at the front of a classroom, dwarfed by a tremendous board on which every inch is packed with equations, which Larry explains are an illustration of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle: a whole blackboard dedicated to equations all meant to prove that we can never really know anything for sure. Larry is so desperate for answers, so convinced that there must be a logical explanation for it all, some way to figure things out in nice, clean math, that he doesn't see just how meaningless all these abstract equations are. For him, the math has replaced the real things it's supposed to be accounting for: he tells Clive, his failing student, that the real-world examples he gives in class are just illustrations, that the math is the thing. He's got it backwards, it seems, forgetting that in science all the math and numbers are meant to support and explain some observable real-world phenomenon.
Perhaps that's why the paradox of Schrödinger's cat is so central to Larry's thinking; it's the perfect illustration of how little we know, how uncertain everything about the world is. And Larry is confronted with a kind of Schrödinger's bribe when a mysterious envelope of money shows up on his desk, and Clive both implies and denies that he left it there as a bribe to get a good grade. As Clive's father tells Larry later in the film, he should simply "embrace the mystery," not try to untangle who left the money there or why, should accept that it's possible for the money to have simultaneously been left there and not left there, just as Schrödinger's cat is both dead and not dead. The Coens are perhaps subtly suggesting that religion, like other attempts to make sense of a world that doesn't make sense, is a fruitless pursuit. It's also perhaps an attempt to grapple with Judaism, with the historical perspective of Jews who believe themselves to be simultaneously "chosen" and cursed, an oppressed and tormented people beset by troubles. As one woman tells Larry, as Jews they don't suffer alone, they have history and tradition and the whole massed Jewish people to help them come to terms with their troubles — but Larry's experience suggests exactly the opposite, that the example of history has nothing to offer him. Rabbi Marshak, the oldest Jewish authority figure in the film, is surrounded by accumulated detritus, evidence of his age and experience, but he literally won't speak to anyone, won't share his knowledge with others — and when he finally does speak, towards the end of the film, it's only to quote Jefferson Airplane and enumerate the band's members, words of wisdom that resonate with Larry's stoned young son Danny (Aaron Wolff) but probably wouldn't have meant anything to Larry himself.
All of this is leading towards an apocalyptic denouement that doesn't explain anything, that never makes sense of Larry's dilemma or his religious, metaphysical and philosophical inquiries. That's the point: nothing makes sense, no one knows what it all means. If the film is somewhat unsatisfying, somewhat incomplete, as a result, hey, that's what life is like, too. The Coens are perhaps being too oblique here, even for filmmakers who notoriously refuse tidy explanations, and their film's ending is a deliberate anti-climax, a final non-sequitur in a film that relied throughout on countless such deadpan, absurdist non-sequiturs. It's an ending, and a film, designed to leave audiences thoroughly nonplussed and perhaps unsettled as well. And that's even without trying to divine the meaning of the introductory scene, in which a Jewish couple is confronted by an old man who they believe to be a dybbuk, an evil spirit.
Larry's confusion and uncertainty are also our own. This would be especially frustrating if the film wasn't so well-made, so compelling in the way it explores Larry's 60s suburban universe. All the wide-open space, the houses with carefully manicured lawns, no fences separating one tract from another. The clouds billowing in the sky, turned dark and threatening by the final moments of the film. And the faces, oh those faces: the Coens have always had a real feel for capturing personalities through deadpan closeups, and A Serious Man is possibly the peak of this approach. From the wrinkled, hound-dog visage of the teacher who confiscates Danny's pocket radio in the opening scenes, to the smug yuppie smirk of Sy Ableman, to the stoned, reddened eyes of Danny and his profanity-spouting friends, to the leathery fake tan and bitchy nonchalance of Larry's next-door neighbor, the Coens continually capture faces in interesting ways, probing these characters through their expressions. The film is clever and darkly funny, and its finale is another of those irresolvable Schrödinger paradoxes: it provokes audiences into trying to decipher the meaning of it all, even while its ultimate message seems to be that nothing is decipherable, that it's all a big cosmic joke of some sort, perhaps perpetrated by a god with the kind of bizarre sense of humor that makes him carve meaningless but cryptic messages inside the teeth of a goy.