A Serious Man
Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
We see a funnel cloud in the middle distance. A growing rumble. At the first downbeat of its chorus, the Jefferson Airplane song “Somebody to Love” pumps up full. We cut to black and credits.
With this juxtaposition of a God-sent disaster and ’60s psychedelic rock, the Coen brothers, the best two-headed filmmaker in Hollywood, bring A Serious Man to a close. The Coens have tried in interviews to dispel the notion that A Serious Man—their departure from big-budget, star-studded, Hollywood-sized movies to explore a Jewish family in Minnesota—is either their own story or social realism. It is neither. Despite some autobiographical gestures, the film is philosophical. It probes what it means to be a Jew—as both social and spiritual identity—for someone who is supposed to believe in God (or Hashem, the word religious Jews invoke so as not to take the name of the Lord in vain).
A Serious Man does not cater to conventional audiences. Non-Jews who have no idea what a dybbuk is and have never been to a conservative Bar Mitzvah will be confused by its references. (Hashem will certainly stump them. It rolls so glibly off the tongues of the Coens’ Jews that it will seem more like a term of affectation than of piety.) And those Jews who cannot forgive Charles Dickens for Fagin, Oliver Twist’s corrupt and corrupting Jewish villain, will be offended by the two-dimensional characters and will miss all the mordant humor. They will decide the film is “bad for the Jews.”
The film is set in a middle-class Jewish community in Minnesota during the ’60s, when the Coen brothers themselves were teenagers. The Job-like protagonist is a professor, as was their father, but the fictional Professor Larry Gopnik (in a masterful performance by Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physicist; the Coens’ father was an economist. Quite unlike the small-minded, fictional housewife, Mrs. Gopnik (Sari Lennick), their own mother was an academic as well. Also, unlike the empty-headed Bar Mitzvah boy of the film—Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff), whose life is made up of pot, F Troop, and rock and roll—the precocious Coen brothers, who may have shared Danny’s indulgences, flourished intellectually and artistically in their academic home. They were already making eight-millimeter films together in high school. Joel attended NYU film school, while Ethan took a detour through Princeton, where he majored in philosophy and wrote a thesis on Wittgenstein. The brothers are serious men who share that unhappy philosopher’s doubts about all forms of “truth,” leavened, of course, by humor. Brilliantly crafted and made with unknown actors who seem to have been born to play these roles, A Serious Man is simultaneously sad and funny: the defining emotional dialectic of the Jewish sensibility.
Looking back at their earlier films, one might argue that their “wicked” sense of humor (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Are Thou) has always been a modern version of the Jewish tragic-comic spirit that runs through Kafka’s bleak stories. The Coens’ hero, Professor Gopnik, is not turned into a giant insect like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, but he is their specimen Jew, whom they poke and prod to see how he will react.
A Serious Man begins with a fable invented by the Coens, filmed in sepia, spoken in Yiddish with subtitles, and set in a shtetl on the Polish-Ukrainian frontier. An elderly stranger, with a long, scraggly, forked white beard, appears at a couple’s door. The husband believes the man is the good Samaritan who helped him get a wheel back on his wagon on a lonely road one night; the wife thinks he is an evil dybbuk inhabiting the body of Reb Groshkover, who died of typhus three years before. So sure is the wife that she stabs the stranger in the heart with her ice pick. The old man laughs hysterically—here is black humor indeed—and at first seems unharmed, suggesting that the wife was right. Then a dark stain grows around the ice pick. The stranger staggers out the door, leaving the husband and the audience unsure about what actually happened. The sepia fable fades to a brightly lit Minnesota Hebrew school where the Bar Mitzvah boy, Danny Gopnik, ignoring his teacher, listens to Jefferson Airplane through an earphone. “Somebody to Love” is the film’s Greek chorus.
Danny and his father are the protagonists. Larry is a singularly unassertive physics professor; he demands and gets no respect. His wife wants a divorce so she can marry the repulsive Sy Abelman. She walks all over Larry and acts as though she is the injured party. His daughter is the embodiment of vanity. She does nothing but wash her hair and wait for the day she will get her nose fixed. And Danny treats his father like a TV repairman, at his beck and call to climb up on the roof and adjust the antenna so F Troop will be less fuzzy. Professor Gopnik also suffers the stress of a tenure committee’s probing eye; a Korean student named Clive tries to bribe or sue him to raise a failing grade; a non-Jewish, deer-hunting neighbor annexes part of his house lot; and his strange, unemployed brother (Richard Kind) has moved into his living room. Despite his problems, the professor remains a loyal and decent man. When he seeks counsel from his synagogues’s three rabbis, the first tells him to look differently at the world. The second tells him a shaggy dog story about a Goy whose teeth are miraculously engraved in Hebrew with the words “help me” (What does it mean? The rabbi doesn’t know. What happened to the Goy? The rabbi doesn’t care). The third rabbi, very old and very wise, refuses to see him.
The lack of certitude is the Coens’ theme, and belief in god in the face of that incertitude is the impossible test of faith.
The striking pairing of the Yiddish fable and 1960s Minnesota leads the audience to wonder: were those shtetl Jews the Gopniks’ forebears? Did killing the old man put a curse on Gopnik? Will the Minnesota story somehow explain the mysterious fable? More likely, the Coens intend us to recognize that both parts of their story are fables. Indeed the film can be read as arguing that everything humans can know—not only about God and the meaning of life, but about physical reality—is a fable. When Gopnik’s student stubbornly claims to have understood Schrödinger’s dead cat / live cat thought experiment but flunked his mid-term because he did not understand the math, the professor explains: “You can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math . . . the stories I give you in class are just illustrative, they’re like fables, say, to help give you a picture. An imperfect model. I mean—even I don’t understand the dead cat.” Schrödinger’s famous paradox—that quantum mechanics implies that a cat can be simultaneously dead and alive—and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle are what the Coens show us of Gopnik’s physics.
The lack of certitude, then, is the underlying theme of all the Coens’ fables—in the shtetl, in Professor Gopnik’s life, and in the formulas that fill his blackboards. And belief in God in the face of that incertitude is the impossible test of faith given to Jews. For some, who in the wake of the Holocaust can have no faith, the rituals of Judaism provide identity and some kind of salvation. The Coens, however, have implausibly left the Holocaust and Israel out of their story, perhaps because those themes would have made it too difficult to mock their Minnesota Jewry. In any event the Jews of A Serious Man seem childlike, a congregation that knows nothing of suffering and has never been tested. For them, Judaism is neither a matter of faith nor of saving ritual.
Two ceremonies at the synagogue—the funeral of Sy Abelman, killed in a car crash, and Danny’s Bar Mitzvah—represent the religious experience of the Coens’ Minnesota Jews. At the funeral the rabbi (of the Goy’s teeth) gives Abelman’s transparently hypocritical eulogy (the man was awful). In a strangely cheerful style he explains at length what death means for Jews: “We speak of L’olam ha-ba, the world to come. Not heaven. Not what the Gentiles think of as heaven . . . we are not promised a personal reward . . . a first-class V.I.P. lounge where we get milk and cookies to eternity.” The Coens’ Jews have neither a heaven nor a hell, only a smug sense of superiority over Gentiles.
And for Danny, the Bar Mitzvah is a drug trip, not a religious experience. He is so stoned that he has trouble finding and focusing on the part of the Torah he is supposed to chant. To the relief of his family and the entire congregation, he finally begins the time-honored ritual that makes him an adult member of the tribe of Israel. Many American Jews who have gone through similar rituals will know that Danny has no idea what the Hebrew words he is reading mean. He has been taught to chant, not to understand.
Religion for the Coen brothers involves neither redemption nor faith in God, and, if Danny is their exemplar, they describe it as nothing but alienation. Danny’s actual “religion” is the psychedelic rock of Jefferson Airplane.
After his Bar Mitzvah, Danny is allowed to enter the study of the great but reclusive rabbi, the rabbi who refused to see his father. As Danny enters the room, the camera lingers on a painting on the wall. It is Rembrandt’s Abraham and Isaac: Abraham about to sacrifice his son to Hashem to prove his faith. Danny is still tripping as he sits before the sage. After a long pause, the rabbi finally speaks: “When the truth is found to be lies. And all the joy within you dies,” the first lines of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” The rabbi then reaches into a drawer and pushes across his desk Danny’s radio, which had been confiscated by the Hebrew teacher. Now the rabbi’s advice: “Be a good boy.”
Every one of the actors in A Serious Man is brilliantly cast, and, except for the professor, each gives lie to the maxim that, in order to succeed, an actor has to be likable. Job was vexed by God with horrors such as the death of his children; Gopnik’s ordeal is one of petty humiliations. Just when it seems Hashem is their existential joke, the Coens turn the knife in their Jewish specimen. Professor Gopnik commits a sin: he pockets his student’s money (he needs it for legal fees). In a twinkling the cyclone comes roaring down on Danny and his Hebrew school, and the professor gets an urgent call from his doctor about a chest X-ray taken at his annual physical.
What does it all mean? Gopnik poignantly asks the second rabbi, “Why does He make us feel the questions if He’s not gonna’ give us any answers?” The Coens, of course, gave their “serious man” that line. Presumably they thought it was sad and funny at the same time. And when the telephone call, the funnel cloud, and “Somebody to Love” end their Jewish film, we wonder—should we laugh or cry?