Joel and Ethan Coen have an almost chronic aversion to being taken seriously. Their darkest movies are nevertheless laced with black humor, and in interviews, they tend to rebuff the idea that their work is about anything other than what appears on the surface. Even to the actors who have worked with them, their intentions are frequently opaque. One need only glance at “Barton Fink”‘s withering portrait of an Odets-ian playwright nattering on about his designs for proletarian theater to see what the Coens think of artists who advertise their themes.
The title of “A Serious Man,” then, can only be ironic — and indeed, the Coens make it nearly impossible to take anyone in the film seriously. Their unlucky protagonist, physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), is an affable bumbler on whom misfortunes rain like in an unceasing torrent. In short order, he’s asked for a divorce, threatened by the father of a student who attempted to bribe him and informed that his impending tenure at the university has been jeopardized by a series of anonymous defamatory letters. There are minor indignities as well: the fact that that his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) only shows any interest in his father when he needs better reception on “F Troop,” and the nagging calls from the Columbia Record Club, which arrive with such persistence that they begin to feel vaguely sinister.
Unable to fathom why this succession of woes should befall him, Larry turns to his rabbi, or rather, a series of them, gradually working his way up to the elusive Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell), a decrepit specimen who will soon be presiding over Danny’s bar mitzvah. The first (Simon Helberg) offers vague analogies which somehow involve an empty parking lot; the second (George Wyner) a breezy, long-winded tale he calls “The Story of the Goy’s Teeth.” Like the movie’s Yiddish-language prologue, in which a woman in a dank shtetl shack murders a stranger she takes to be a shape-changing dybbuk, thereby bringing a curse down on her (and presumably Larry’s) family, the rabbi’s parable hints at deeper significance without actually divulging it. It might mean something, or it might not.
The Coens play the same game, on a larger scale, with “A Serious Man.” A stylized, slow-speed farce, the movie is frequently absurd and occasionally silly, but it also touches on profound moral and spiritual quandaries, the kinds of things the Coens would never be caught dead addressing directly. Only in retrospect do key lines extricate themselves from the innocuous interactions in which they’ve been hidden: Larry’s warning to a student, “Actions have consequences, and not just in physics”; his insistence to the record-club rep that “I didn’t do anything” when he protests having ordering Santana’s “Abraxas”; the father who employs contradictory tactics to muscle Larry into changing his son’s grade, and then counsels him to “accept the mystery.”
Although it’s nowhere near as foreboding as “No Country for Old Men,” “A Serious Man” is just as bleak. Larry, who seems to have lived an exemplary moral life (if also a particularly dull one), looks to the heavens for guidance and finds only gathering clouds. He turns his power of logic on his own situation, to no avail. (His wastrel brother, played by Richard Kind, goes even further, spending his days on an illegible scrawl called the Mentaculus, an equation which will some day make the world’s probabilities entirely foreseeable.) If actions have consequences, does it follow that you only get what you deserve?
The Coens based “A Serious Man”‘s setting on the Jewish community in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park where they grew up, and although the movie is not in any intelligible way autobiographical, the complexity of its tone and the depth of its humor suggest something that has been gestating for a long time. One can imagine the prepubescent Coens going from Hebrew school to “F Troop” and back again, forging an aesthetic midway between the two. That the movie is cast almost entirely with unfamiliar faces only increases the Coens’ presence. It’s hardly a film à clef, but it’s as close as we’re ever likely to get.