The Movie Review: 'A Serious Man'

The wittiest scene in Joel and Ethan Coen's 2001 film The Man Who Wasn't There is one in which a fast-talking defense attorney, Freddy Riedenschneider (marvelously played by Tony Shalhoub), invokes Heisenberg's uncertainty principle as grounds for a not-guilty verdict in a murder case:

We can't know what really happened.... Because the more you look, the less you know. But the beauty of it is, we don't gotta know! We just gotta show that, goddamnit, they don't know. Reasonable doubt. Science. The atom. You explain it to me. Go ahead, try.

At the time, this routine seemed little more than an offhanded parody of the Michael Frayn play Copenhagen, in which Heisenberg and Nils Bohr discourse windily about the inscrutability of their past actions and intents. But the idea recurs more centrally in the Coen brothers' new film, A Serious Man, when a beleaguered physics professor named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) explains to his students that the uncertainty principle "proves that we can't ever know what's going on." In this case, it is far less clear whether the assertion is intended as satire or corroboration of Frayn's metaphor. Indeed, the movie itself is similarly difficult to pin down: part tragedy, part epistemological inquiry, part Jewish comedy of manners.

The film opens with a prologue, a 19th century ghost story set in Eastern Poland. A poor Jewish farmer returning home to his wife one wintry night brings with him an old traveler who may or may not be a dybbuk--the soul of a dead man sent back from Hell. The scene, played entirely in Yiddish, has no direct connection to what follows and might easily be considered an idle flourish. But it succeeds in establishing the aura of doom--unforeseen but inexorable, deaf to entreaty--that permeates what follows.

That doom belongs, for no given reason, to Larry, a family man living in a Midwestern suburb circa 1967. (The locale, like many of the other details--the Hebrew school his son attends, the ancient, sphinx-like rabbi revered in the community--derives in large part from the Coens' own upbringing in St. Louis Park, on the outskirts of Minneapolis.) One day, Larry's wife (Sari Lennick) informs her startled, oblivious husband that she wants a divorce. She has become very close, she explains, to another man, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Sy, too, is eager to discuss his romantic intrusion with Larry, to ensure there are no ill feelings. When he shows up on the doorstep, at once bearish and teddy-bearish, he engulfs Larry in a hug, promising "We're gonna be fine."

Further impositions press upon Larry from all sides: A student tries to bribe him for a better grade; an anonymous letter-writer slanders him to the tenure committee; a layabout brother (Richard Kind) nurses a sebaceous cyst while perfecting his "probability map of the universe"; a comely neighbor sunbathes nude under Larry's desperate gaze. As Jerry noted in the Emmy-winning "Seinfeld" episode "The Contest" (under overlapping circumstances), "Something's gotta give!"

But for Larry, nothing does give. Rather, the screws tighten, incident by incident--a car accident, an unanticipated funeral, an escalating series of legal transgressions committed by his brother. Larry seeks the counsel of a series of rabbis, but to little end: One advises him to witness evidence of the divine in a parking lot; another tells a fable with no moral; a third won't speak to him at all. His quest for meaning, for some explanation of what is happening to him and what he might do about it, is a journey down an endless hallway of closed doors.

A Serious Man is the Coens' most autobiographical film to date, and their most emphatically, if not always flatteringly, Jewish. The ethnic landscape they portray is so uniform that the few goyim in the film are presented as dangerous exotics, forever playing ball and hunting deer. There's a strong whiff of Woody Allen to this cultural contrast (think the split-screen family dinners in Annie Hall), though filtered through the darker lens of the Coens' vision. It may not be an accident that the actor who plays Larry's truant son, Aaron Wolff, could easily pass for one of the young, red-headed Allen stand-ins who populated the director's earlier films.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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