In A Serious Man, their most autobiographical film to date, the Coen Brothers lay bare their Jewish identity, as a mentsh of constant sorrow.
A Mentsh of Constant Sorrow by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
A Serious Man is a very serious film. OK, so perhaps its opening scene in a shtetl may not seem all that serious, but the Coen Brothers‘ latest cinema outing is the most autobiographical of all their films to date. Set in small-town Minneapolis suburbia (Twin City, nudge nudge, wink wink) with proper God-fearing Jews on one side of the street and untrustworthy goyem on the other, A Serious Man is a tale of three Coens; the teenage, music-loving, joint-smoking boy Danny growing up in the Sixties preparing for his bar mitzvah, the father, Larry Gopnik, played by a charmingly exasperated Michael Stuhlbarg, on a quest for halachic answers to his marital, existential and theological crises, and the two brothers, Arthur and Larry, twin-bedded in their motel room, ostracised but mutually supportive and accepting – despite, or perhaps because of their individual quirks and eccentricities.
The comic quirkiness of the Coens’ previous O Brother, Where Art Thou? or the backwater eccentricity of Fargo are however noticeably lacking. It even lacks the slapstick comedy of Burn After Reading or the suspenseful storytelling of No Country For Old Men. Instead A Serious Man is a ponderous meander through the wilderness of what it means to be Jewish in modern-day America, the gap between orthodoxy and daily Jewish life, and the quest for answers to all of life’s little problems. Which isn’t to say there’s none of the Coens’ usual off-the-wall delicious detail. The sibilance of Arthur’s cyst-draining machine and the farcical “Tale of Jewish Teeth” are phenomenally enjoyable, but ultimately frivolous, leading us a merry Hora. Instead, the majority of the film is taken up with Larry’s moral prevarications as he whines and climbs the hierarchy of local rabbis, looking for answers to the all-pervasive question, “Oy, vey! Why me?”
And so Larry kvetshes his way through divorce (and the all-important Get), scrambled TV aerials, Sy Ableman’s costly funeral, tenuous college tenures, uncomfortable motels, seeping cysts, neighbourly landgrabs and student bribery. Again and again, the pitiful plea comes, “I didn’t do anything wrong.” But the troubles of the world won’t be done any time soon. It’s not until one fine Shabbat that peace finally returns to Minnesota’s Larry Gopnik, as son Danny celebrates his bar mitzvah with intoxicated aplomb (also getting his transistor radio and $20 returned from Rabbi Marshak), husband and wife are reconciled and Larry receives a tip-off his university tenure is likely to be granted.
But this Jewish God is a jealous God. Once Larry decides to take the money hidden in his desk (a bribe from a shamed and failing South Korean student) and he changes the grade from an F to a C, events take a sudden and terrible turn. Almost immediately, Larry’s doctor calls him in to examine the results of his medical tests and a twister threatens to destroy the North Star State. Larry Gopnik has finally done something. He has committed chet. Like the salvation on the Shabbat, this divine smoting is Hashem’s final-curtain appearance, a God who for much of the film has been conspicuously silent. As with the bleeding dybbuk in the shtetl prologue, the viewers share the characters’ uncertainty as to whether He really exists or not. But it is this shred of faith which forms the gossamer thread running through the Coens’ A Serious Man; the delicate spiritual crisis of a believer in a material universe.
It’s a fragile seed, lost in the Coens’ familiar shtick of a man against the world. But the Jewish milieu, the bothersome family, the sea of troubles, it’s all nothing more than bupkis mit Kuduchas. And in the words of a very serious man, “It may be subtle, and it may be clever, but at the end of the day, is it convincing?”