The Coen Brothers Get Serious

09/30/2009 4:00 AM |

A Serious Man

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

“The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked along.
”—Franz Kafka

Debate over the Coen brothers always returns to the siblings’ sincerity: aside from their own cleverness, what do they really stand for? But with each successive effort it becomes clear that these inseparable misfits are now the American filmmakers best equipped to investigate the complexities of the most seemingly basic moral questions. And, of course, vice versa.

For such purposes, A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) makes an ideal Coen hero. Neurotic, weak-willed and invisible as a human being to the friends, family and students who tear away at his threadbare dignity, suburban math teacher Gopnik plays both as cousin to Fargo’s pathetically impotent paterfamilias and as a bougie version of the befuddled “life of the mind” protag of Barton Fink. Ungrateful children, a bribing pupil, a mentally disturbed brother, a racist neighbor, and a belittling wife and her unctuous lover confront him with the possibility of an illogical, unfair universe, but this existential crisis also focuses on two subjects the Coens have rarely broached: the nuclear family and the post-war American Jew.

Period surrealism, as usual, provides their funniest and most tragic imagery. Schlamazel Gopnik’s Job-like tale assumes cultural as well as “universal” significance on the cusp of 1967’s Summer of Love, with unlikely correspondences developed between his materialistically assimilated Minnesotan Jewish community and “the new freedoms” promised by the oncoming social upheaval. Most notably, a rabbinic tale about a dentist’s confrontation with an orthodontic miracle is scored to Hendrix’s thundering acid rock face-melter “Machine Gun,” and a Bar Mitzvah is experienced through the eyes of a catatonically stoned adolescent, with hilariously drawn-out slo-mo shots of yads gliding across Hebrew texts and torah-bearers cursing “Jesus Christ!” under the burden of their load.

The clash between beige-toned middle-class mediocrity and first-time hallucinatory transgression is repeatedly thrilling, but also profoundly unsettling. For all the Coens’ playfulness, their sights are locked on Gopnik’s Kafkaesque estrangement and broken moral compass—when his ever-growing, ever-worsening trials finally recede, a restoration of order still depends on a small but profound ethical dilemma. At this moment, A Serious Man’s shtetl fable opening, in which evil is unhesitatingly cast out by a strong Yiddish woman, is ironically reversed and the Coens reveal their true moral designs. By providing a labyrinthine commentary on American insecurity and confusion—“the flag is going to rip off!” shouts a kid warning of a violently flapping Old Glory during the Gopnik-precipitated Old Testament climax—their vision becomes nothing less than Talmudic.

Opens October 2

3 Comment