Joel and Ethan Coen open their excellent new film, “A Serious Man”, with a quote by French Rabbi, Rashi: “Receive with simplicity, everything that happens to you.”
Larry Gopnik, the beaten-down protagonist would probably find that philosophy fairly infuriating. Perhaps because over the course of the film, Larry is subjected to a gauntlet of humiliation and misery only Job could sympathize with.
Larry’s nicely boring existence in 1960’s suburbia seems to be falling apart. Larry, a physics professor, has his chances at tenure threatened, his oddball brother Arthur (Richard Kind) has taken up permanent residence on his living room couch and his kids seem completely oblivious to him.
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Ruchard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff & Jessica McManus
Runtime: 105 min
Perhaps most baffling is Larry’s shrewish wife Judith’s announcement that during the couples recent “problems” — we never learn what they are and sense Larry isn’t sure either — she has fallen in love with their neighbor, Sy Ableman. Sy, who scores a 12 (out of 10) on the smarmy scale, suggests Larry might be more comfortable moving into a local motel.
As Larry’s life spins further and further out of control his friends urge him to seek council from the local rabbis. Surely they can explain why Hashem (God) is testing Larry’s faith in such extreme ways?
The council of the three rabbis Larry speaks with proves frustratingly vague and unhelpful (The first demands that Larry look at the parking lot and bask in God’s wonder). Larry, finding spiritual guidance not as enlightening as he hoped, clings to his oft-shouted cry, “But I didn’t do anything!”
The Coen Brothers inject their tale with healthy doses of dark comedy, but it would be unfair to overlook the fact that they are asking questions as serious as any they posed in their masterpiece, “No Country for Old Men”. Larry’s journey to find meaning and reason for the bad things that keep happening to him, while exaggerated, is something most anyone can relate to.
Michael Stuhlbarg’s excellent performance as Larry deserves a lot of credit. Larry is not a buffoon that we laugh at. Sure, Larry’s misfortune often yields moments of humor, but the comedy never overwhelms the character and turns him into a caricature. Stuhlbarg’s ability to capture the desperation and despondency of a seemingly cursed man, keeps the character heartbreakingly human.
And while the Coen Brothers certainly bring a certain glee to the depiction of Larry’s suffering, they never pull back from the character. They force us to see the toll that all of Larry’s woes are taking on him. The film is clearly asking some personal questions, ones that the brothers have probably been asking themselves ever since their childhoods spent in a 1960’s Minnesota neighborhood that clearly inspired Larry’s own.
Neither Larry nor the audience is given any real answers as to why such bad things are happening to such an unassuming and seemingly nice man. Hashem’s plan for Larry is not any more clear or defined at the end of the film than it was in the beginning. How could it be? The Coen Brothers seem to be suggesting that while Hashem may judge us simply- if you do good you are rewarded, bad you are punished- the way Larry and the rest of us choose to act is based on reasons far from simple.
It is amazing after 25 years and 15 films that the Coen’s are still able to surprise us, this time with their most personal and profound film to date.
“A Serious Man” is in theaters on October 2. Watch the trailer below.