A Serious Man
A Film from Joel and Ethan Coen


The new film from Joel and Ethan Coen is the kind of existential mediation of the human condition they have made their life's work. As in past films, they explore the proposition that the our notions of "cause and effect" represent a hopelessly naive world view that is the root of our suffering.

Some have compared the story of the hapless Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlberg) to that of Job, but it's a stretch to do so. Job's tragedy was that he was a righteous man in a predictable world, who was visited with suffering in spite of his piety and goodness. Gopnik is the classic schlemozzle of Jewish comedy, whose every facial expression and physical gesture frames with amusing - but painful - irony the age-old question, "Why me?"

There are numerous variations and permutations on this theme throughout the film, which balances the question of why bad things happen to good people with the equally perplexing (and perhaps more inflammatory) quandary of why good things happen to bad people.

The "meaning" of events, Sartre proposed, was a value we added on afterwards, in retelling them. Although it is a "meaningless" exercise, he (and the existential philosophers and theologians whose work paralleled his) concluded that the very act of existential "defiance" embodied in searching for meaning, in "creating' stores of meaning (even though the idea of "meaning" in any empirical sense was seen as "absurd") is the highest form of man's self-affirmation and self-expression.

Although Larry Gopnik is an intellectual of sorts and it is the 1960s - the decade in which "existential philosophy" burst on the American scene - it seems unlikely that he's familiar with the Existential analysis of his predicament. But there can't be any doubt that such a consciousness is dawning, and that his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) - a member of the Coens' own generation who stands in for them - is emerging into a new world.

In a counterpoint that surrounds the body of the film, Danny listens to The Jefferson Airplane song "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? / Don't you need somebody to love? / Wouldn't you love somebody to love? / You'd better find somebody to love..." on his Walkman during Hebrew school.

His Walkman is confiscated. Near the end of the film, in his ritual meeting with High Rabbi as part of his Bar Mitzvah, which signals his emergence into manhood, the High Rabbi quotes the very same lines - and returns the Walkman. Is he senile? Is he profound? Is he tripping? Does it matter? The "meaning" of the experience that Danny takes away is going to be understood after the fact, by Danny himself, as it has been understood in this film by the Coens, related by them to us, and will be interpreted and understood by us according to our own experience and worldview.

The story follows Larry's downward (or is it upward?) spiral, from the safe, secure, circumscribed life he thought he was living, to a chaotic, threatening, unpredictable but ultimately also challenging and liberating experience where all the old rules are changed. Larry is rejected by his wife and the mother of his children in favor of Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) a psycho-babbling; proto-new-age friend (who she characterizes as the "serious man" of the title). He is terrifyingly attracted to the uninhibited neighbor who has a penchant for nude sunbathing, threatened and harassed at work by his Department Head, an inscrutable Korean student, Clive Park (David Kang), and the Columbia Record Club.

He is burdened with the care of his supposedly brilliant but unemployable brother (who, in a Munchausen-by-proxy reference to Job is actually "afflicted with boils"). He can't get traction in developing relationships with his children, who are abandoning his values and outlook. The answers he seeks from his religious leaders range from incoherent, through irrelevant to non-existent.

When a series of events seem to "resolve" his problems (albeit requiring him to redefine just what those problems are, and what constitutes "acceptable resolutions") it could be some mechanism of "fate," it could be The Hand of God, or it could just be random coincidence. Once again Larry - and the rest of us - are left to puzzle it out. And the Coens choose to underline their theme with a final sequence in which a threat of truly cataclysmic proportions approaches...

It's a very well-written film, with enough Yiddishisms and ethnic humor to establish a real character and flavor of the family's and community's identity in a particular time and place, but not so much as to make it inaccessible or obscure, much less "campy." The verbal interplay is real-world-absurd, worthy of Nichols and May, or middle-period Woody Allen at their best. The digressions with the two Rabbis' stories and the prologue are wonderful little vignettes that could have stood alone as delightful short films, or routines like those N&M did on stage in the 1960s.

The dialogue effectively and economically establishes character - from Larry's straightlaced, repressed, self-censorship, to Sy Ableman's unctuous egotism, to Danny's adolescent insecurity and David Kang's mangled-English pronouncements, that are laughable and sinister at the same time. There's little waste. Throughout their career, the Coens have been steadily paring away the extraneous, the pointless fripperies that may have been delightful to conceive of, to write, and even to film, but that failed to move the story forward. In that respect especially, this is their most accomplished screenplay to date.

As directors, the Coens have often been praised by the actors with whom they work, and in this case they've gotten wonderful performances from a group of actors who are relatively unknown. As is always the case in their films - even the very earliest - there's an attention to detail in even the smallest roles that gives the texture of the film real depth. The actors take advantage of their opportunity.

Michael Stuhlberg, who has played minor supporting roles in his previous movies, avoids the clichés Woody Allen established in the 1960s, while mining the same vein of ironic, self-deprecating, existential humor/drama that goes back through Isaac Bashevis Singer to the earliest Jewish story-tellers. He brings Larry to life as a man trying to be "good" without ever having asked basic questions about the nature of "good" and "bad," and their place in the world. His awakening is the comic and dramatic mainspring of the story, and Stuhlberg maintains this delicate balance with wonderful simplicity.

Sari Lennick, as Larry's wife Judith, has less to do, but makes an effective counterpoint to Larry's psychological confusion - like her counterpart in the prologue, she is supremely confident in her own opinions and ready to take practical action no matter how extreme. Fred Melamed embodies Sy as a rationalizing, manipulative, narcissistic, con-man, who not only wants to steal Larry's wife, but wants Larry to approve! He handles a role that could have been a "comic villain" and a caricature with a conviction that allows the underlying insecurity and vulnerability to show - however dimly - through.

Jessica McManus as daughter Sara, and Aaron Wolff as Danny play real rather than cute (at least partly a tribute to the Coens' directorial skills) and treat their characters' problems and suffering with real respect. Wolff's scene as a highly-intoxicated Bar Mitzvah-Boy will resonate with hilarity and agony to anyone who has had that version of the "actor's nightmare" particular to those who lived through the 1960s.

Minor characters, including performances by Amy Landecker as the libidinous neighbor, and Richard Kind as Larry's troubled brother Arthur, as well as Simon Helberg as Assistant Rabbi Scott, George Wyner as Rabbi Nachter, and David Kang as the troublesome student Clive Park, all add important elements to the film's success.

The Coens - in their own very different way - rank with Merchant and Ivory in their use of visual elements and images, careful and detailed sets and staging, to subliminally infuse their films with a powerful atmosphere of time and place. The work they've done here ranks with their very best. The mid-1960s in a Jewish community in Minnesota (which is the rough equivalent of the mid-1950s shading into the 1960s on the East and West Coasts) is evoked with painstaking (but not distracting) clarity that throws the foreground action into bright relief.

The camera-work here is much more straightforward than in some of their other films (The Man Who Wasn't There, Miller's Crossing, or O Brother Where Art Thou) where they were often trying for a "genre" look. They may have consciously chosen to evoke the point of view and static camera work of 1950's-style "instructional films" in some sequences, but the angles and perspectives are so much a part of our modern conventions as to disappear. Overall, it is the balance and integration of the film, not any cinematographic flourishes, that make it work.

The music is essential to the narrative. The Jefferson Airplane song delineates the border between the "old order" - the world as Larry and his family have known it - and the new world that is rushing upon them with the unpredictability and power of the film's final image. And the song's message - that an existential emotional connection to others trumps "understanding" of "truth" and "lies" and may be the only thing we have to hold on to that "means" anything - may be the closest thing to a suggestion of a way out of their dilemma for the Gopniks, and for all of us.

This is an accomplished film. The Coens, despite occasional stumbles, keep reaching higher. Their films - after more than twenty-five years of teamwork - are among the most polished and meticulously-crafted of any filmmakers working today. But it isn't shine on the surface, it's a craftsmanship that goes deep - into story, into performance, into script and scene and music, to do what films do best: provide us with an inspiring, stimulating, diverting and thought-provoking experience.

That's my take on it. What's yours?