Directed by Coen brothers’
A Serious Man
“A Serious Man” is as different from the Coen brothers’ other work as it is possible to be, and then some. At a recent press conference just before the film opened, Joel Coen said: “...you're often thinking, ‘What can we do that's not like what we just did?’ Believe me, “A Serious Man” is not at all like any other of their movies. And thank God, or Hashem, for that. Because that makes it much more fun for the rest of us. For one thing, it made me glad to be a secular Jew rather than an observant one; because who could stand the pain? Not me. “A Serious Man” takes place, for the most part, in some suburban neighborhood of Minneapolis – I assume, since the Coens came from there originally. “For the most part” means that a prologue takes place in some unnamed shtetl of eastern Europe, two hundred years or more ago, when a husband comes home to his wife and tells her a story about why he’s late: a wheel fell off his wagon and a lovely man came to help him, whom he’s now invited to join them in some soup. “Schmuck!” says his wife, that was a dybbuk, she says; the man died three years ago. A knock on the door, and sure enough it’s the dybbuk. Maybe, or maybe not. Which is pretty much what the rest of the film is like.
I tell you this because the opening of the film is all in Yiddish, and there is a moral of some sort in it, which I will also tell you as soon as I figure it out. In the meantime, the burden of the film is set about forty years ago, judging by the cars and the marvelous Jewish-suburban decor of the houses. A cast of unknowns (by Hollywood standards) populates this part of the film. Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) teaches physics in an unnamed college; he’s waiting for the tenure committee to tell him what his future will be. Meanwhile his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for his best friend Sy (Fred Melamed); his son, who is about to be Bar Mitzvaed, is listening to the Jefferson Airplane in Hebrew school, his daughter steals his money to pay for a nose job, and the house’s television antenna can’t get good reception. Did I also tell you about his brother-in-law, who spends most days in the bathroom draining his sebaceous cyst? Why did I forget that? And what about the Korean student who is failing physics and tries to bribe Larry and then blackmail him? Or the message from God, or Hashem, on the inside edges of a goy’s teeth? Or the sexy neighbor who sunbathes nude and induces all manner of dreams in Larry? Or – well, why go on? It’s a film packed to the gills with lessons for all of us, if only I knew what they were.
In other words, this is a whole world shoehorned into this little film. It’s never going to be a big hit (there are too many gentiles in the United States for that) but it is an astounding piece of work, coming after “No Country for Old Men” and “Burn After Reading.” As one critic said, it’s what you make after you’ve won an Academy Award. And thank God for that.
Some people see a version of the Book of Job in “A Serious Man.” I think it’s the story of what might happen to any of us if fate were just a little more twisted than it is.