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A Serious Man (2009)

WARNING: FARMISHT SPOILERS

For most of my adult life I’ve suspected myself of being fairly Jewish for a gentile kid from Minnesota. I blame the usual suspects: Roth, Doctorow, Mailer, Bellow, the Marx Bros., Woody Allen, Seinfeld. I’ve been made an honorary Jew by Jewish friends, been told by gentile friends that I’m the most Jewish gentile they know.

Friday night, halfway through the Coen brothers new film, “A Serious Man,” I had the following epiphany: I have no fucking clue.

First they get all Hebrew on my ass. A gett? Hashem? Haftorah? Shabbos? Then they give me that Old Testament morality. “Actions have consequences,” Prof. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stahlbarg) tells Clive (David Kang), a Korean foreign-exchange student attempting to bribe him to get a better grade. “Yes, often,” Clive quickly agrees. “Always,” Gopnik tells him.

Don’t even get me started on the prologue with the dybbuk.

It’s 1967 and Gopnik is a professor of physics who teaches the uncertainty principle and then lives it when his wife asks for a divorce, a ritual Jewish divorce, or gett, so she can remarry within her faith. To Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed). “Sy Abelman?” Larry asks. He seems more perplexed for her reasons than her actions. So are we when we finally meet Sy. He’s bald and bearded, hardly Gregory Peck, but he’s controlling in a moist, maternal way—he’s forever hugging Larry—rather than being controlled by, as Larry often is.

Gopnik is the kind of man who timidly obsesses over small details—such as the property line with the Brandts, his stoic, hunting-happy Minnesota neighbors—and misses the big picture. Not only is his wife leaving him but his kids have left him. His son, Danny, is a mess of sixties contradictions: he has that classic Beatles haircut (redhaired version), smokes pot, listens to Jefferson Airplane, but only cares to talk with his father when the reception for “F Troop,” the lamest of ‘60s sitcoms, comes in fuzzy. His daughter, Sarah, only talks to her father to complain about Uncle Arthur, Larry’s brother, hogging the bathroom to drain the cyst in his neck. When Larry gets banished from the marital bed, Arthur is the reason he doesn’t even get the couch in his own home—Arthur’s already there—he gets a cot next to the couch. Everyone wants something from Larry but never Larry. “We should wait,” he says when Uncle Arthur is late for dinner. “Are you kidding?” Danny responds and everyone starts in. Soon Larry is the one they don’t wait for. He and Arthur have been banished to the Jolly Roger, a nearby moto-lodge.

That’s at home. At work he’s being considered for tenure but letters arrive denigrating him. Dick Dutton from the Columbia Record Club, that great ’60s scam, keeps calling about money he owes. Then Clive’s father shows up accusing Larry of 1) defamation, because Larry accused his son of a bribe, and then pleading 2) cultural differences, because Larry didn’t accept the bribe.

Larry’s helpless before this kind of illogic. He can’t extricate himself from it. Life has the quality of a nightmare: Everything’s repetitive—Sy keeps hugging him, the Brandts keep playing catch, Arthur keeps draining his cyst—and everything’s unknowable. Dream sequences in other films are usually obvious but in the Coens’ films they blend almost seamlessly with life, so we in the audience are in the position of the dreamer: We don’t know what’s dream until it’s over. And even then. By the pool last night—did that happen?

Once Larry establishes that nothing is established—that everything he thought was one way is another—the film can be divided into three parts, or three solutions to this dilemma, based upon the three rabbis he visits at his temple, the “well of tradition” he tries to draw from.

The first and youngest rabbi is Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg), who counsels seeing everything—everything—as an expression of God’s will. To see it all anew. This is the closest of the three to a Christian vision of life. “Look at the parking lot, Larry!” Rabbi Scott announces proudly, peeking through his horizontal blinds at the asphalt outside. Larry tries to carry this Pollyannaish mood to the office of his divorce lawyer (Adam Arkin), who looks at him as if he’s crazy. Then during the meeting he gets an emergency phone call from his son. What’s wrong, Danny? That pipsqueak voice: “F-Troop” is fuzzy again, Dad. How can we look at life anew when it’s all so repetitive? This section ends when Larry gets into a fender-bender after cursing out Clive on his bicycle, while, at the same time, Sy, trying to make a left turn into a goyisher country club, dies in a car accident. Actions have consequences. Always.

The second, middle-aged rabbi, is Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner), who tells Larry stories that at least seem headed toward the direction of eternal questions. He tells about the goy’s teeth, for example, a story about a dentist, Dr. Sussman, who, after making a mould for Russell Kraus, finds the phrase, ‘Help me, Save me,’ in Hebrew on the back of his incisors. He searches other people’s mouths for messages and gets nothing. He translates the letters into numbers and gets nowhere. And the Rabbi sits back, pleased with his story. Gopnik’s confused. “What did you tell Sussman?” Gopnik asks. “Sussman?” the rabbi answers. “Is it relevant?” “What happened to the goy?” Gopnik asks. “The goy?” the rabbi answers. “Who cares?” Told that you can’t know everything, Gopnik finally loses it. “Sounds like you don’t know anything,” he says, voice rising.

At this stage, more of life becomes unknowable. Detectives come looking for Uncle Arthur because he gambles. Cops bring home Uncle Arthur, charged with sodomy. Gopnik suspects his wife of draining their bank account. He gets high with his sexy neighbor, whom he’d seen nude-sunbathing from his roof. An old lawyer, about to reveal the secret to the Brandts’ property line, suddenly drops dead of a heart attack. “I am not an evil man!” he tells a colleague. “I’ve tried to be a serious man,” he tells the world. And there’s our title. We first heard it used to describe Sy Abelman at his funeral. A serious man. An able man. As opposed to a Gopnik? What is Larry’s crime? Not to God but to the Coens—who are, admittedly, the gods of this universe. Is it the foolishness of the assumption that good fortune follows good deeds, and thus bad fortune must follow bad deeds, and yet—he keeps asking himself—what bad deeds? Is it the foolishness of the “Why me?” question, when the universe, if it could answer, would simply answer, “Why not you?”

The final rabbi, the eldest and wisest and most difficult to see, is Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell), and Gopnik isn’t allowed to see him. He’s as silent to Gopnik as God. But we get to see him. After his bar mitzvah, Danny, still stoned, visits Marshak, who, slowly, Yiddishly, delivers this pearl of wisdom:

When the truth is found to be lies
And all the joy within you dies

The boy smiles, recognizing the Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” which the rabbi first heard after Danny’s transistor radio was taken from him at the beginning of the film. “Be a good boy,” the rabbi finally says. Is this doddering wisdom or ultimate wisdom?

Who knows? There’s a scene early in the movie where Larry ascends the roof of his ranch-style house to fix the antenna so Danny can watch “F-Troop,” and he checks out the view over the other, ranch-style homes in this flat Minnesota neighborhood. It’s the shot on the poster, in which Larry looks decisive. He’s less so in the movie: all dress shoes and highwaters on a slanted roof, and the view isn’t exactly revelatory. Until he sees his neighbor, nude-sunbathing, and forgets everything else. That antenna on his roof only picks up so much—now this channel but not that channel—and all of us are pretty much the same: We only receive so much, and usually we go for “F-Troop,” or we get distracted by the nude sunbather. There’s an old proverb—“Man thinks, God laughs”—and much of the Coens’ work feels built upon this proverb. Their characters are helpless trying to fathom it all.

Give the Coens this: they get the details right. I was born in Minnesota in 1963 and seeing this film gave me flashbacks. I got as dizzy as Gopnik on his roof. Mr. Brandt, the detective, the cop: they all have these bland, Harmon Killebrew-type faces from the period. The burnt orange Larry’s sexy neighbor wears is the exact right burnt orange for the coming age of Aquarius. The iced-tea glass she gives Gopnik is the exact right iced-tea glass. There’s a scene at a lake, Uncle Arthur at a neighborhood lake, and Gopnik on the shore complaining to a friend that he doesn’t deserve the miseries that are being visited upon him, and even that lake, somehow, feels exactly like a lake in 1967. I don’t know how they did that. The iced-tea glasses I can see; they can be manufactured or bought at a Value Village. But where does one get a lake from 1967? Is it the clothes and the bathing suits people are wearing, the landscaping that was done, the angle of the light in which the DP chose to film it—like the light of a slightly faded photograph? Is it all of the above? Nothing the Coens do is frivolous and yet little of it makes sense.

The ending of “A Serious Man,” which is a film about unknowability, and which is written and directed by the brothers who gave us the uncertain end of “No Country for Old Men,” shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, although it will, I’m sure, lead to debate. It’s already led to the internal kind.

Gopnik, assured of tenure, seemingly back with his wife, and the father of a son who’s now a man, gets the bill for his brother’s criminal defense attorney, Ron Meshbesher—who is, in reality, one of the more famous attorneys in Minnesota—and it’s exorbitant. And he thinks about the envelope full of Korean bribe-money still in his desk drawer and eyes Cliff’s grade in his gradebook. The weather’s turning. In Hebrew school, Danny and others are being led outside because of one of Minnesota’s numerous tornado warnings, but the rabbi has trouble unlocking the door to the shelter. And as Gopnik in his office changes Cliff’s grade from an F to a C-, Danny sees the dark tornado funnel heading their way. THE END.

My first reaction: “Aw, crap.”

My second reaction: OK, unknowability, uncertainty. I get it.

Third reaction: Or maybe it’s the opposite. Actions have consequences—always—and this disaster is what Gopnik’s slight indiscretion has wrought. By accepting the bribe, changing the grade, he loses his son—and anyone else in the tornado’s path. It’s Old Testament, baby. It’s Malamadic. The problem with Gopnik isn’t that he assumes that good fortune follows good deeds; it’s that he doesn’t assume it enough. He doesn’t live his life by it.

Fourth reaction: Or is the tornado metaphoric? Gopnik is feeling settled again in his life in suburban Minnesota in 1967 but there’s a tornado coming his way and our way: the rest of the sixties. A tornado that will upend everything.

Final reaction: I think, the Coens laugh.

—October 11, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard