30 Years of Coens: A Serious Man

The Book of Job meets 1960s Minnesota

Focus Features

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Coen brothers' debut, Blood Simple, I’m re-watching their 16 feature films and attempting to jot down observations on one per day, in order of their release. For a fuller explanation of what I’m doing and why, see my first entry, on Blood Simple. (Here, too, are my entries on Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, No Country For Old Men, and Burn After Reading. The landing page for the whole series is here.)

Notes on A Serious Man  (2009)

• Of all the Coen brothers movies I’ve re-watched over the past couple weeks, this is the one that (so far) has risen the most in my estimation. I still rank it mid-pack, but I found it significantly more enjoyable than I had on prior viewings. In particular, the endless tribulations visited upon its protagonist, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), came across as more comical and less cruel than previously. This may be in part a function of having watched it just 24 hours after Burn After Reading, a movie that almost mandates an internal recalibration of what constitutes “funny.”

• Larry is a well-meaning family man and professor of physics in a suburban Jewish enclave in Minnesota, who in short order: is told by his wife (Sari Lennick) that she wants to divorce him to marry another man; is offered a bribe by a Korean student who is failing his class; and is told by the head of his department that he is being anonymously slandered to the tenure committee. Meanwhile, his roughneck goy neighbor is encroaching onto his yard, and his unemployed brother (Richard Kind) is sleeping on his sofa, nursing a sebaceous cyst, and trying to complete his Mentaculus, a “probability map of the universe.” Oh, and his kids are teenagers, with all that entails (including, yes, unpaid bills from the Columbia Record Club).

• Some of the gags are pitch-perfect. Fred Melamed is terrific as Larry’s romantic rival, Sy Ableman, a bear of a man who seems more interested in comforting Larry (“We’re going to be fine,” he says, submerging him in a hug) than in wooing his wife. The scenes with the Korean student (“Mere surmise, sir”) and his father, who threatens to sue Larry for defamation if he doesn’t accept the bribe and for taking money if he does (“Please, accept the mystery”), are razor sharp, and offer clever iterations on the movie’s central theme of the unknowability of the universe. (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle makes a return appearance, joined this time by Schrodinger’s cat.) There are a few great sequences involving a comely neighbor, Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker), with a penchant for pot and sunbathing nude. And The Mentaculus seems like a plot element that, if anything, could have sustained greater mileage.

• Elsewhere, though, the Coens seem to pile on haphazardly. Like the loose Odyssey frame of O Brother, the Book of Job format of A Serious Man is capacious enough to accommodate almost any indignity. So Larry’s brother must have not only the cyst and law-enforcement troubles over the misuse of his probability map for gambling, but also an eventual arrest for sodomy. We have not one but two sudden deaths, the second of which is an entirely extraneous (and not particularly funny) gag. And while the “wisdom” offered by two rabbis is amusing—in particular, the latter, who offers an incomprehensible fable of his own—the punch line offered by the third does not merit the buildup. The result, for me, is an intermittently great existential comedy that doesn’t quite crack the Coens’ top comic tier of Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, and Burn After Reading. (For any interested, my original review is here.)

• For almost as long as they’ve been making films, the Coens have been accused of “nihilism”—and for almost as long as that, they’ve seemed to consciously toy with the accusation, going so far as to include a (sublime) trio of nihilists in The Big Lebowski. What is perhaps most interesting about the charge is that different viewers find confirmation of it in different films, going back at least as far as Miller’s Crossing. Some point to Fargo (which seems odd, given the presence of Marge Gunderson) and some to No Country (less odd, perhaps, but still we have Sheriff Ed Tom Bell to contend with). The affectlessness of The Man Who Wasn’t There is cited on occasion, as is the savage comedy of Burn After Reading. Overall, the charge of nihilism seems to me extreme and spurious, but I’ll grant that the Coens sometimes present their characters from a somewhat clinical and unsympathetic remove. And for my part, I find this tendency most pronounced in Barton Fink and A Serious Man. In part, it’s a question of causation. For all the brutality in Blood Simple, Fargo, No Country, and Burn After Reading, with very few exceptions the characters’ fates flow from their own actions. Even Ed Crane of The Man Who Wasn’t There—one of the Coens’ trio of Doomed Men—embarks on his mortal path when he decides to blackmail Big Dave. By contrast, Barton Fink and Larry Gopnik appear to be doomed not by what they do, but by who they are.

• It seems notable here that Barton and Larry are the Coens’ two most explicitly Jewish protagonists and the two whose biographical paths overlap most clearly with the Coens themselves: one, a screenwriter, and the other a member of an observant 1960s Midwest household not unlike the one in which the Coens grew up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. This is in no way to suggest the Coens are anti-Semitic or self-hating or anything comparably silly. On the contrary, if one is going to undertake the onscreen tormenting of a character, it’s probably a good thing if that character bears some resemblance to oneself. But there’s something about the glee with which the Coens torment these two that I find slightly off-putting, and without a comparable corollary in their more violent films. (They do not seem, for example, to take any joy in the death of Llewelyn Moss in No Country—one reason why complaints about said death appearing off-screen ring hollow to me.) This may be an idiosyncratic response, but it’s one that nonetheless has kept me from embracing Barton Fink and A Serious Man unreservedly.

• As one might expect from a film that draws so explicitly from their own lives, A Serious Man has a solid share of movie in-references. “This is not about ‘whoopsey doopsey,’” Larry’s wife tells him of her plans with Sy Abelman—a clear echo of Tilda Swinton’s description of her own indiscretion with George Clooney (“not all fun and games”) in Burn After Reading. The Columbia Record Club employee who harasses Larry on the phone is voiced by Warren Keith, who played a near-identical role in Fargo as Reilly Diefenbach, the GMAC finance officer who pesters Jerry Lundegaard. (Keith also had small roles in Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski.) And the wizened Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell) conspicuously recalls the wizened senior partner Herb Myerson (Tom Aldredge) in Intolerable Cruelty. But given the tonal and thematic similarities, it’s unsurprising that the movie to which A Serious Man harkens back most often is Barton Fink. Michael Lerner, who received an Oscar nomination for his role as studio boss Jack Lipnick, reappears just long enough to drop dead. The sebaceous cyst and the movie’s early focus on ears remind us of Charlie Meadows’s chronic infection. And the very first shot following the dybbuk prologue, in which the camera appears to be coming out of the ear canal of Larry’s son, inverts the famous into-the-drainpipe sexual metaphor of the previous film. Chew on that, Freudians.

Et Cetera:

Where I rank A Serious Man among Coens films: #9 (Didn’t I already put Barton Fink in this spot? Yes, I did, but I’m bumping A Serious Man above it. I’ll reconcile the rankings at the end of the project. Accept the mystery.)

Best line: “The goy? Who cares?”

Best visual: Mrs. Samsky smoking a cigarette mid-coitus

Best sound: The scrape of the Torah pointer making its way down the page

Notable locales: The Minnesota suburbs

Notable Influences: The Book of Job

Dream sequence(s): Yes

Important scene(s) set in a bathroom: No

Tuchman Marsh, divorce attorneys: Yes

Number of characters who vomit: Zero

Next up: True Grit