As filmmakers the Coen Brothers have always managed to blend broad, bright comedy with the darkness of human nature. And the same is apparent here in their film A Serious Man. The film is effective in its presentation of the truly goddamn depressing (death, divorce and dentistry), with the amusing bizarreness of life and finding beauty in the simple little things.
The film’s success has something to do with the quality of the film’s script, and the use of not using established, well-known stars which makes this film stand out among the others in the Coen’s filmography. In typical Coen brothers fashion, they begin their film with a mysterious sequence in a 19th-century Polish shtetl: an unsettling folk tale drenched in mortality and fear. The short ”sketch” is highly amusing, if slightly surreal and discomforting. But it sets you in the mood for what is about to unfold on-screen in the rest of the film.
The film follows Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose wife is leaving him for his best friend. His son is listening to rock ‘n’ roll in Hebrew school, and demanding his father clim onto the roof to fix the aerial so he can watch his favouriter show on TV. His daughter is stealing money for a nose job, and fighting with her brother constantly. His brother-in-law (a wonderfully hilarious Richard Kind as Uncle Arthur) is sleeping on the sofa and lurking in unsavory bars. His gun-nut neighbor frightens him, he has built a massive boat shed which has spilled over onto Gopnik’s lawn. A student tries to bribe him and blackmail him at the same time. The tenure committee is getting unsigned libelous letters about him. The wife of his other neighbor is sex-crazy, and Gopnik has strange wet dreams (more like wet nightmares) about.
As sympathetically played by Stuhlbarg, Larry Gopnik is a man who loves his job, and we often see him passionately writing out acres of formulae for his class. A job that, in those pre-Powerpoint times, has to be done with an old-fashioned bit of chalk! His special interest is demonstrating the Schrödinger’s Cat paradox, a proposition from quantum mechanics envisaging the incarceration of a cat in a box with a flask emitting radioactive poison. Which, as time passes, may or may not have killed the cat. Until the box is opened and its contents verified, the cat is to all intents and purposes both alive and dead: a quantum system that is a mixture of states.
The movie’s most bizarre twist puts Gopnik in a nasty car accident at the same instant that someone very important in his life is killed in a crash on the other side of town… is this a real life example of the Schrödinger theory in action?
Much of the success of A Serious Man comes from the way Michael Stuhlbarg plays the role. He doesn’t play Gopnik as a sad-sack or a whiner or a depressive. But as a hopeful man who can’t believe what’s happening to him. What else can go wrong? Where can he find happiness? Who can he please? Just how much bad luck does one man have to encounter? Maybe his bad luck is because an ancestor invited a dybbuk to cross his threshold, Larry is cursed. A dybbuk is the wandering soul of a dead person. You don’t want to make the mistake of inviting one into your home. But how much of Gopnik’s bad luck can be accounted for by curses, and how much of it is down to a poor lack of judgement and bad decision-making?
Perhaps the Coen’s are trying to tell us that our fate is what we make it, and or destiny is out of our hands? Gopnik visits rabbis to try to find a solution to his problems, but ultimately learns that he just can’t control everything. And a little chaos can be a good thing from time to time.
The supporting cast is strong too, especially Fred Melamed as the love rival, Sy Ableman, highly amusing. It’s not a big role but he’s so good. He establishes a full presence in his first scene, when he’s only a voice on the telephone and states in a calm, polite fashion that he believes it will be good if they have a long, helpful talk. Even though he’s just ”stolen” Gopnik’s wife!
The two main actress are good too. Amy Landecker is perfect as Mrs. Samsky. She makes the character sexy in a strictly logical sense, but any prudent man would know on first sight to stay clear, there’s a little too much of the ”Mrs Robinson” about her. Judith Gopnik, as Larry’s wife, is able to suggest in only a few scenes that she’s leaving him not for passion or out of anger, but because the love has dried up. Her response to a serious event involving Sy is actually quite heartbreaking, not just for her but for Gopnik too.
The Coen’s manage to effectively address the concept of religion and belief without being preachy or making the film’s message too forced. The film’s premise is simple but works to great extent, the story is simply about a man searching for answers from traditions, trying to find out what is his position in the universe. A Serious Man feels rooted and personal for the Coens, but it moves towards a greater discussion of previously treaded upon themes and plots from their previous work. It is a challenging film and those who have struggled with the Coen brothers previous films, may be turned off by it. However I was glad that I finally got around to watching it, as it was a lot funnier than I’d originally believed.
The film’s ending may seem a little bit of a downer, but the film is so wonderfully quirky and ultimately hopeful despite this. The Coen Brothers manage to offer us something inspiring, that is so simple and obvious that it is often overlooked. And that’s the message that life is too short to be obsessing about the reasons behind every event that occurs. There is just randomness in this universes that is beyond our control, so let’s stopping being so serious, man.