“I said, “Why should a pyramid Stand always dully on its base? I’ll change it! Let the top be hid, The bottom take the apex-place!” And as I bade they did… The end? Foul birds defile my skull. The new king’s praises fill the land. He clings to precepts, simple, dull; His pyramids on bases stand. But—Lord, how usual!”1
One may conceive of A Serious Man as the Coens’ answer to their critics, who for years have accused their films of nihilism or worse. The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink in particular are largely seen as something like apocalyptic sketches: the former portraying modern man after the idealism of the 60’s has all but disappeared and the latter suggesting that man is utterly corrupt and salvation is unattainable. The Coens have at last crafted a black comedy that both embraces and shuns their origins, while complicating them.
Presumably the year is 1967. Larry Gopnik is a high-school physics lecturer somewhere in the Midwest; your everyday married-man. His small, yet idyllic life is suddenly changing for the worse: his son Danny ignores his existence unless he needs the television antenna fixed, or money; his daughter is stealing from him to save up for a nose ring that he disapproves of; worst of all his wife has shacked up with an acquaintance named Sy Ableman, “a serious man”. Their relationship seems like a totally logical development to them, but to Larry it couldn’t be more sudden or incomprehensible. Since the camera would have us identify with Larry’s perspective whenever possible, their actions and their rationalities appear to us to be just plain weird. Obviously, Larry’s wife wants a divorce so he’s turned out to a motel. Sy dies suddenly and Larry, the meek bastard he is, feels obliged to pay for the funeral. With mounting financial pressures, Larry finally resorts to something he never before would have considered.
One way of looking at the film will lead to a conclusion of its comprehensiveness, what you might call the Book of Job interpretation. This is a rather simple category that leads to simplified notions of morality, Manichean in apprehension and Hebrew in aspect. Larry is a man struck by a series of mockingly ruinous events for which he has no explanation; his life has been one of reticent humility. With no apparent karmic reasonableness, then, Larry is dumbfounded by all that has befouled and befallen him. His appeals to the heavens include the protestation, “I haven’t done anything!”. Like Job his character is being tested by unseen forces, until, that is, Larry is given the opportunity to cheat. He takes the easy way out of a difficult situation and what befalls him next, at film’s end, will make his prior squalor seem like a prelude to the opening act.
The Job interpretation would appear to be an affirmation of Hebraic traditions—heed your elders, heed the law, heed not temptation—but it ignores the film’s most important motifs and avoids its subtleties of language, both dialogic and visual. Indeed, there are as many interpretations of the events depicted and the film holistically as there are interpretations of quantum theory. And to ignore the obvious preoccupations of the film such as causality, time and quantum uncertainty is to lose a great deal of appreciation for it. For if A Serious Man is nothing more than a didactic embrace of Old Testament morality, what enjoyment is there to be had from that?
Fortunately the Coens have given us something far from didactic, and a film not only technically competent, but rife with detail—so much so that even multiple viewings will hardly reveal all of its secrets. What we have is a modern tale, a post-Einstein, post-Freud one—not an Old Testament fable. I am sure that many reviewers will say, “this isn’t so much a film about nothingness as it is about nothing in particular”, yet nothingness is something, and so is perspective. This film is not pitiless, indeed it is very human. In spite of its distances, in spite of the irrationality that our protagonist faces, it is no less irrational or incomprehensible than real life often is.
One of the many facets tackled so consummately is the double-emphasis on communication and comprehension. Indeed we have characters attempting to either systematize, impose order upon or dissolve themselves from the responsibilities of reality. This intercourse with reality (and hence with the viewer) is best illustrated in a scene with Larry’s next-door neighbor, the alluring Mrs. Samski. She answers the door and gives Larry this thousand-yard stare that intimates sexual stimulation; her body language entire seems to intimate the same. Then she invites him inside for some tea, takes a seat next to him on the sofa and… offers him a joint. After a few hits it becomes apparent that Larry and the viewer both have perverted the situation; Mrs. Samski was simply high when she answered the door, her gleaming blue eyes were dulled by smoke, not excited by Larry. Larry’s perspective shifts considerably after his first taste of the devil weed. A police siren roaring down the street is heard by him before either Mrs. Samski or us. The audio-visual manipulations of this scene will be repeated in another memorable one when Danny attends his bar-mitzvah stoned out of his gourd.
There’s also a great deal to be said for the film’s ostensible synchronicities. Briefly, consider the following: the mysterious calls to Larry’s office from the Columbia Record Club—is it really his son Danny ordering records on Larry’s dime?; the confluence of letters that Larry’s supervisor receives telling him not to grant Larry a promotion—they appear to be the product of Sy’s scheming intellect, but there are other intimations; the apparent simultaneity of Larry’s minor fender bender with Sy Abelman’s, superbly rendered through parallel montage by the Coens—have we witnessed a synchronistic event or simply a ‘coincidental’ one? The examples are numerous and there exists no final answer to their ambiguities. All that can be said for certain is that the Coens intend to breach our reality tunnels, beckoning us to take a harder look and to never take film ‘reality’ for granted. They’re likely also having a bit of fun with the many viewers who, through imprinting or conditioning or faith, have confused causation with correlation.
So Larry commits a transgression against his conscience, one that harms no one save himself, but for the viewer to assume that this little transgression precipitates the terrible events that follow (or to assume this is the Coens’ objective) would be a logical fallacy, a pitfall that the Coens have almost set them up for, but conviction in this kind of supernatural wrath is quite common in many belief systems. Faith, many faithful would argue, does not depend upon logic or reasonableness, but rather religious feeling, or an abandonment of reason altogether. But, and I think the Coens would agree, what is really being embraced is a rigid causality—an Aristotleian sense of time and a Euclidean sense of space. These are very old precepts, and A Serious Man, perhaps more than any film to date, is urging for a modern perspective, one that copes with the apparent scientific reality and abandons superstition. An uncomfortable perspective.
Yet it is also apparent that this film is not obsessed with trampling organized religion. Its Jewishness is pervasive and I don’t think it takes sides. Indeed, probably the sagest character in the film is the young Rabbi, who seems to understand innately that everything depends upon perspective; he possesses the kind of understated outlook one would expect from a Buddhist or a Yogi, or a disciple of Einstein. Yet this is obscured, intentionally, by the portrayal. Not only does he look rather silly but his advice—“Just look at the parking lot Larry!“—is taken by Larry (and the audience) as youthful naiveté and the scene as a result is committed to memory as humor and nothing more.
Speaking of which, it would be a gross dereliction to leave unmentioned the incredible humor of this film. Sy Ableman has to be one of the Coens’ greatest characters, and one of the funniest in recent years. His relationship with Larry has such a genuine awkwardness and it is perfectly understated to make it all the more amusing. Remember, this is the guy who purloined his wife and, not only that, he has this soft-spoken arrogance that would make anyone’s blood boil. Sy suggests ever so benevolently that Larry move out of the house and into a motel called, ironically, ‘The Jolly Roger’, a dwelling Sy considers “imminently habitable”. Larry’s apparently racist neighbors are as amusing for their irrationality as any hair-triggered racist in real life and a whole host of smaller characters come and go who simultaneously add to Larry’s chagrin and make a comedy of the film’s blackness.
1 Stephen Vincent Benét, The Innovator (A Pharaoh Speaks)