“When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies…then what?” — Rabbi Marshak
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
A Serious Man is a black comedy about Larry Gopnik, a Jewish mathematics professor, age unspecified, who realizes one day that his life seems to be falling apart. The setting is a very convincing 1967 in Minnesota.
His brother is sleeping on the family’s couch and constantly nursing a monstrous (but never seen, thank God) cyst on his neck. Then he learns that his wife is leaving him for his friend Sy Ableman. His son Danny is smoking pot and signed up for the Columbia Record Club, under dad’s name. Santana’s Abraxas was automatically mailed but no payments have been sent! Danny’s selling the records for drug money, but he’s more worried about taking a beating from Mike Fagel (“a fucker”) over a $20 pot debt when he should be worried about Hebrew school and his upcoming Bar Mitzvah. (“Studying Torah, asshole!”) His daughter Sarah is always either washing her hair or out with her friends. Within this setting, innumerable irritants and stumbling blocks fall in his way, usually within the same scene. Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” is the opening and recurring music to a heap of problems the characters get in. (Rock fans also take note: Jimi Hendrix shows up later.)
All that Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants is to make something of his life, and become “a serious man”. Expectations, demands and obligations seem to obstruct him at all times. Confusing advice from Rabbis, a neighbor who seems to tease him by sunbathing topless, a South Korean exchange student offering him bribes, another neighbor seemingly encroaching on the property line, his card-counting brother, and his own faith seem to taunt him at every turn. It’s not a complex story: it is character driven, comedic, dramatic and nostalgic all at once. In other words, typical Coen fare. I love the ironic but authentic touches like a doctor lighting up a cigarette in his office.
The recurring theme of the movie is (or isn’t) Shroedinger’s paradox. Larry’s about to get tenure at work even though everything else is falling apart. “Even I don’t understand the dead cat,” says Larry near the beginning of the film, but it is clear that actions do have consequences. All Larry needs are answers, but they are not forthcoming. He thinks that perhaps the reclusive Rabbi Marshak can help him, but he knows that the math says you can’t ever know anything with certainty.
As is par for the course with Coen films, special features are sparse. There is a brief bit explaining all the Jewish terminology in the film done as entertainingly as possible. There’s a great feature on how they made the neighborhood look exactly like 1967, and how they got the cars, costumes and locations. Finally there is a feature with the Coens and actors on the film itself, what it means, and what inspired it.
I particularly enjoyed the unconnected short story that opened the movie. Jewish folklore and the vivid minds of Coens collided and this short story is the result. I think it’s designed to set a mood, but also to act something like an opening cartoon which used to precede movies in the 60’s. This tale of the returned dybbuk is subtitled and presented in the old fullscreen format instead of wide.
Look for The Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Helberg in a small role as Rabbi Scott.