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.

18 comments:

Dave said...

I have struggled with what to make of this film since I got the Blu Ray and was finally able to watch it. Your excellent essay here had an interesting effect on me - it didn't (and I mean this in the best way possible, not as a negative) reveal great new interpretations that I missed when I watched, it actually showed me that I was reading the film along the same lines as others. What has kept me from fully embracing the film is that it _does_ feel unsatisfying at points, which I can sometimes struggle with in films. It's good to see that this is precisely the reaction that others felt at times. I definitely owe this one another viewing.

Ed Howard said...

The film challenged and affected me, and I found it weirdly compelling, no doubt about it, but I was also baffled and non-plussed by so much about it. It's a really unique film, but also a frustrating one in many ways, resolutely holding back answers and explanations, not only from the desperate Larry, but from the audience as well. Its whole structure reflects the fruitless lifelong search for meaning and understanding, erecting barriers to comprehension wherever it can. That's the point, I suppose, but there's no denying that it makes for a very unsettling and sometimes maddening viewing experience.

Steven Santos said...

I just want to add that this was a great piece and perfectly captures what is so effective about this film. I consider it quite an achievement that the Coens made a film that was satisfying on so many levels, while equally being a frustrating experience for those who want answers.

It has actually been fascinating because I think this movie reveals more about us in how we react to it. As much as the ending is left open to interpretation, I also believe what you make of the prologue colors what the rest of the movie is about, particularly whether you believe that was really a dybbuk or whether it was a woman letting her superstitions get to her.

One aspect I always considered key are the shots that focus on ears: the first shot after the titles from inside Danny's ears, the doctor checking Larry's ears and the final shot of the film which refocuses on Danny's ears while the music playing in it gets louder. It was my feeling that the characters may have been seeking greater spiritual answers to life when they do not simply listen a little more to what they hear. Although it is a Jefferson Airplane song, it does not mean its lyrics cannot be profound in some way.

Jake said...

I'm always somewhat bashful to admit that, for all of the aesthetic perfection (regardless of what you think of their films, it's hard to attack the look of 'em) and their mires of analytical possibilities, what typically draws me most readily to their work is the simple fact that they tell the best shaggy dog stories around. I'm such a sucker for what has been labeled "anti-comedy," which I find a great deal more humorous than the tired tropes of so much of what is accepted to be comedy. I love it when Norm Macdonald goes on a chat show and essentially ruins the entire format by turning it against itself.

And, in the long line of shaggy dog stories put out by the Coens, A Serious Man is certainly the shaggiest and the doggiest. The entire film lies in Nachtner's hysterical teeth story, though I find that the ending of the story is perhaps the biggest gag, proving that the dense web of unfinished thoughts that was the film was really only a protracted beginning to a story that will never have a punchline. Plus, despite the typical cynicism, I do think that the Coens have always had a warped fondness for their caricatures and it's most plainly visible here (though Cage and Hunter in Raising Arizona and Marge in Fargo are more sympathetic individual characters).

Ed Howard said...

Steven, interesting thoughts. I have to admit that though I've continued to think about it, I'm still not quite sure what to think of the dybbuk prologue in relation to the rest of the film. Is the "dybbuk" a hapless soul like Larry, an ordinary guy cursed to be assaulted for reasons outside his control? If so, he accepts his cruel fate in a way Larry never quite can. On the other hand, if the old man really was a dybbuk, well, I don't know what to make of that at all. But I guess that's the point, again, in a film that's continually reminding us that we have no idea what's going on in life, the universe, or anything.

Jake, there's no doubt that whatever else the Coens have to offer, many of their films are most easily appreciated as low-key comedies of human error. Not this one so much, though, at least not in my opinion. It's just too unsettling and mysterious for its comedy to truly dominate, though the story of the goy's teeth did have me roaring with laughter; it's the comic and thematic center of the film.

Just Another Film Buff said...

w00t, cracker of a review, I must say. I did like the film very much, but it seems far from the masterwork many claim it to be. This intentional ambiguity, that now seems characteristic of the Coens. seems like nothing more than a trick to me. For all its questions about teh universe, I think its philosophy is just too shallow. Gimme me Woody Allen any day.

Vidal said...

Terrific review, Ed, for one of my favorite Coen brothers films. However, from how I read this review, I feel your perspective on the film's middle sequences overwhelm how you saw the beginning and end, whereas I think it should be done the other way round. My thinking is that the dybbuk scene talks about how religion and superstition could lead to drastic actions, especially when trying to prevent bad luck and, perhaps, a loss of control over one's life, which Larry feels at the end of the film. Once the man, presumed to be a dybbuk, is fatally stabbed by the wife, an irrational fear of oncoming bad luck is replaced by an even greater misfortune: complicity in murder, and that has even worse consequences, legally and morally. I also agree with you that the Coens dismiss religion as folly in doing so.

As for the ending, I see it is a somewhat similar resolution to everything that came before. Larry (and, perhaps, to a lesser extent, his son) has been fretting about what can be considered the little things in life, mostly financial and status-based, when something truly big comes along: for Larry, a grave illness; for Danny, a freak storm. However, with Larry, it follows a deceitful action so closely, that the question is only inevitable in coming up: are the two events related? Of course, the flaw here is that we (or maybe just I) can only surmise that Larry has a grave illness from the Doctor's seriousness over the phone, and that Danny may be doomed because the rabbi can't open the door. That openness to interpretation does make any objective summation of the film's message impossible, but I think one's own worldview fills in the blanks.

To me, the film is saying that, with all situations, things could be worse, and when they get bad enough, how then does one cope? The Coens don't have any answers there, they just dismiss some ideas and bring up new ones. Who are they to propose "the ultimate answer"? No, to them, life is incomprehensible and mysterious, but that's the fun of it.

I can't deny that the film does come off as unsatisfying in answering people's questions, but I can't agree that I found it unsatisfying as a whole. I had too much fun watching it. The Nachtner scene concerning the dentist and the goy fills me with joy each time I watch it.

So that's my take on it. Again, great review, Ed! I really enjoy this blog; I rarely comment because your takes on these films are brilliant enough, but with a film this subjective, it was hard for me not to.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I've never been a fan of the Coens (I walked out of Blood Simple in the first reel), but I TRULY despise this one. Their Jewish self-hatred has now grown to pathological proportions. They are in this film attacking the people I grew up with and loved in suburban Queens in the 196o's. I have nothing but contempt for them.

Ed Howard said...

JAFB, as I've made clear, I'm pretty conflicted about this film, but I don't think it's shallow by any means. There are a lot of ideas here; whether they're all fully developed or satisfying is another question.

Vidal, I'm glad you weighed in with these perceptive comments. I especially like your reading of the dybbuk scene as representing a dichotomy between fear of religion/superstition and fear of more worldly concerns. Looked at that way, it makes perfect sense within the film: Larry is overwhelmed equally by existential concerns, the big questions about what it all means, and more prosaic concerns about legality and procedure (the bribe, his neighbor and the boundaries between their houses). You've helped me make some sense of a scene that was previously, frankly, just baffling to me: the dybbuk is either a sign of the realm beyond the corporeal, or he's a victim of a misguided murder. That ambiguity certainly resonates with Larry's uncertainty about whether his life is being affected by religious/spiritual forces or if he's simply stumbling around making mistakes, guided only by man's laws.

David, I know you hate, and have always hated, the Coens, but I've only rarely seen the contempt for their characters that you see in them. Certainly, here, they seem to feel for the hapless Larry's predicament in a pretty big way; his struggle is very viscerally felt.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Ed, what I mean by shallowness is its noncommittal nature. It's easy for a filmmaker to throw in the towel and take to cynicism. And I feel it is easy for them to present how it's all crazy and complex out there. Every other filmmaker seems to tackle this (albeit only "seriously"). It takes a rare Kubrick to go beyond and analyze what now? What can be done, now that it's clear that it's all messed up.


p.s: My verification capcha word is "fates"

DavidEhrenstein said...

Their attitude towards Larry is viscerally felt -- by them. What's next? A musical version of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion ?

Adam Zanzie said...

This was my favorite film of 2009. Wonderful review, Ed.

To be sure, David is not alone in his specific criticisms of the film. More than one person has told me that they disliked A Serious Man supposedly because it has themes of hopelessness, and just plain Jewish guilt.

I disagree, though, because while the Coens DO find humor in torturing Larry, they also find humor in incidents that actually end up (without his own knowledge) in his favor. For instance, when he finds out that Sy has died: he screams, "WHAT!??", and that, for me, is the funniest scene in the film. Somewhat morbidly, however, Sy's death takes away from some of that hell that Larry keeps having to endure. Certainly in regards to the obstacles that are being thrown all around his marriage.

I've said this on numerous occasions and on various blogs, but I really adored that bar mitzvah finale. Even though nothing is left certain, there's the sense that Larry's relationship with his wife is finally beginning to heal- thanks to their son's manhood. I don't think the Coens would have bothered to put this sequence in the film if all they wanted to do was to make the film one big guilt trip.

True, I don't quite understand the significance of the two scenes that bookend the film, but that hasn't stopped me from loving A Serious Man as much as I do. It's not that I have a blind faith in the Coens' ambiguity, but I do believe that these types of scenes (including the ending of No Country) touch off on those emotional nerves that are difficult to elaborate on.

DavidEhrenstein said...

"Guilt" is the least of it. It's "look at the funny Jews! Yes, we're Jews too, but HERE are the funny one! Aren't they a scream? It's just like the Book of Job, only in suburbia."

Vidal said...

David: I think you're being a bit unfair. From interviews, the Coens are clearly disillusioned with the Jewish faith, but I hardly think it's to anti-Semitic lengths. Admittedly, it's one of those troubling situations where members of a certain race, religion, etc. are making fun of their own, because they have problems with aspects of their heritage; something people outside that community would get in trouble for. Yet I have seen nothing that indicates that they outright HATE Judaism, only that they feel that it is somewhat flawed as an ethos (and using that word, forget the line in Big Lebowski that makes this argument harder to make!), something I say they are entitled to do. Anyone who feels that it is an argument for anti-Semitism may already be, perhaps, predisposed against them (that does not extend to you; I understand your position as one that is apprehensive about the message it sends to such people). That is hardly their fault, though. Why shouldn't they say how they feel just because there's anti-Semitism out there?

They use characters that are foolish and ineffectual in every movie they've done, and comparitively, Larry Gopnik goes through the movie relatively unscathed. True, the Coens do contrive a number of unpleasant situations for him, but as I said in my last post, nothing that is all that terrible until the end. He only feels like he's being tortured, when really, he's making mountains out of molehills. He may have difficulties few people would want to go through, but (according to the Coens, and I'm inclined to agree), he incorrectly feels that there's a deeper meaning, a reason for why he's having such problems when, really, he's just having the mother of all bad slumps. Again, how does one cope? Generally, how one sees the world informs their attitude to such things and the Judaism (at least the type the Coens grew up with, and how they came to relate to it) didn't really appeal to them.

But I don't think this film is so much about Judaism and the filmmaker's problems with it, but the struggle to understand the vicissitudes of life, which is as universal as you can get. I can't say I know a huge deal about the Coens, as they seem eccentric to almost abstruse lengths in how they feel about the world, but they do seem to have a penchant for foolish people who try and tackle things beyond their control, and the moral ramifications of doing so. In the case of this film, I think it's that it's futile...until the end.

Of course, I can't try and convince you that their attitude towards Judaism isn't something to be annoyed with, but I hardly think it's offensive in itself. I'd be as outraged as you are if someone were to use this as evidence of some flaw with Jews in particular, when it really isn't. Still, I couldn't stay silent on the matter.

Incidentally, I loved your Criterion essay on If..... It was very interesting.

Jeremy Masten said...

I just wanted to let you know that reading your review prompted me to give this movie another shot. I did, and now it's a movie I plan to buy.

I wish I could contribute on the Jewish question, but I don't know enough about Jewish American history---or Judaism in general---to comment intelligently. I can only say that once this Gentile got up to speed on Yiddish (Hebrew?) slang, the movie felt as universal as any movie I've seen. At least, it affected me.

Jez said...

This great looking film portrayed Jews in American as an economic success story, but as is the way with portrayals of conformist suburban life something invariably dark and troubling is bubbling away behind the white picket fences. The only difference between this and numerous other films is that it's Jews and not WASPs that are the subject matter.

I took the reference to the Southern Minnesota tornado outbreak of 1967 as an illusion to the impending 6 Day War of June '67, surely an important event in the young Coen's life. Larry's brother Arthur is reading books by Israel's then foreign minister Abba Eban and Yigael Yadin, an archeologist and army general obsessed with finding evidence of the ancient Israeli Kingdom of David and Solomon. Could this represent the Coen's liberal disillusionment with Zionism?

Great blog by the way.

Ed Howard said...

David is certainly not the only one to level these criticisms at this film, and at the Coens in general, and I see where he's coming from without quite agreeing. Yes, the Coens often mock their characters, but I think they also feel affection for their predicaments, and that sympathy prevents their best films from seeming as vicious or cruel to me as their detractors often accuse them of. Larry is a man who's adrift in the world, and religion is little comfort to him, since it provides no concrete answers he can hold onto, and he's someone who desperately wants to feel like he understands what's happening. The film doesn't strike me as anti-Semitic so much as it rejects the idea that religion — any religion — can help us make sense of a nonsensical universe. It's specifically about Judaism because that's what the Coens know, and obviously that's the religion that has had a personal presence in their lives, but it could just as easily be about any other religion and have the same themes. How many films have been made about Catholic guilt and the lack of answers without the directors being accused of anti-Catholicism?

Adam, I agree that the bar mitzvah scene is great, and mitigates against the sense of dread that otherwise hangs over the film's finale. There's a sense that at least some form of happiness is possible.

Jeremy, I'm glad I could convince you to give the film another look; it's a film that really demands multiple viewings to puzzle out its ideas and connections.

Jez, thanks for bringing up the references to some 1967-specific events, which I hadn't caught. That reading does suggest one possible interpretation of the otherwise inscrutable final scenes: an apocalypse on the horizon in a very specific form.

artychoke said...

The Coen's know Jewish culture. That's why they use it, not because of anti-semitism. Jewish culture is a backdrop for their (or a) world view. Jewish culture contains 3000 years of human evolution. Compare this with some newer world cultures. Hah. The universe provides random events, good and bad, that people interpret as their wont. Believe it or not, some are positive, like a next door neighbor angel. Some are negative like a wife from hell.