Thursday, November 12, 2009
The Goy’s Beef: A Serious Man
I stalled as long as I could in the hopes that wisdom would reach down to me from the heavens like a funnel cloud, but after two trips to the theater and several weeks of pondering it’s time to face the facts: A Serious Man has me seriously befuddled. It’s a clever film, to be sure, effortlessly weaving together Schrödinger’s cat, the Book of Job and Jefferson Airplane as if they are natural companions. It’s an amusing film, too, though I’d stop short of calling it “audaciously funny” or “seriously funny,” as Owen Gleiberman and Peter Travers apparently did, according to the promotional postcard. It’s a remarkably well acted film, even though its biggest star is Richard Kind, a career “that guy.” It’s also beautiful to look at because, well, Roger Deakins shot it. And yet for all the ways I can think to praise this latest effort by Joel and Ethan Coen, I am overwhelmed with the sense that something is missing. And what’s missing, I think, is the sense of being overwhelmed.
A Serious Man deals in some profound concepts, but I can’t say I found it profoundly affecting. I laughed, but I was never struggling to catch my breath. I was engaged throughout, but I wasn’t moved. As the film unfolded I recognized what it was doing, but by the time the credits rolled I didn’t feel any significant impact from what it had done. Perhaps I wasn’t supposed to. I’m not sure. Movies by the Coen brothers have been mysterious, ambiguous and even aimless before, but they’ve never been this paradoxical – and I’m not just referring to Schrödinger’s cat or to the dybbuk who haunts the opening vignette. Or, then again, maybe I am, because with A Serious Man everything is woven together. Within the frame is the story of a man trying to make sense of it all. Outside the frame are movie audiences trying to do the same. The Coens, via the experiences of Larry Gopnik, seem to be telling us to take this film – and presumably others – at face value, to “receive with simplicity everything that happens,” to “accept the mystery” and to dismiss the entertainingly inexplicable by tossing up our hands and saying “who cares!” But is it really that simple? To twist the words of the main character a bit, would the Coens really make us “feel the questions” if they didn’t want us desperately seeking the answers?
To be clear, this isn’t a reaction to the film’s conclusion, which is more abrupt than the finale of No Country for Old Men, though less cryptic. Unlike Larry, I’m not wrestling with the very big question of “What does it all mean?” Not exactly. What I’m trying reconcile is why one of the Coens’ most thoughtful films seems to be so adamant that we accept it for its surface entertainments, as if it isn’t to be taken seriously, even though its construction is anything but frivolous. Is A Serious Man the Coens’ attempt to create the cinematic version of Schrödinger’s cat? Is it a basic mindfuck? Is it an exhibition of false modesty? Is it contemptuous? I don’t know. What I recognize is that Larry’s journey suggests that ignorance is both blissful and poisonous. (Spoilers ahead.) Larry was perfectly happy with his life when he was unaware that his wife was falling in love with another man, his son was sticking him with the bill for a record club membership and the three rabbis in town were useless. Eventually, though, he pays a price for that ignorance, which would seem to suggest that awareness is a good thing, except for the fact that A Serious Man routinely underlines the futility of trying to solve life’s deeper mysteries. When the figures of wisdom that Larry encounters preach about the virtues of a parking lot, or show no interest in a miracle simply because it happens to a goy or spend the entire day “thinking” only to quote Grace Slick, what is wisdom worth? The more you seek to understand, the movie seems to say, the more disappointed you will be by what you learn.
These are conflicting messages, aren’t they? I don’t mean to sound surprised. The Coens have a history of making films that seem at odds with themselves – clever and cold, thoughtful and glib, refined and undefined. Straightforwardness isn’t their style. Thus, maybe Larry’s error isn’t ignorance or disengagement. Maybe his mistake is the belief that all of life’s mysteries can be diagramed and solved like a math problem. Or, heck, maybe life’s mysteries can be solved like an equation and Larry has made a mistake in his calculations; he believes that by not acting upon others that others won’t act upon him. Then again, maybe all of the above is somehow true. A Serious Man is an interesting riddle to puzzle over, but as a result it comes away feeling like a math problem. It reveals that I am Larry Gopnik, less interested in the illustrative story directly in front of me than in the formulas behind it. How do I reconcile a film that asks me to receive it with simplicity while encoding itself with such significance? Is that the film’s biggest joke, that in order to fully appreciate Larry’s mistake of detailed analysis we are forced to repeat it? Could it be that this film is less about Judaism than about the church of cinema and its overzealous followers?
It strikes me that A Serious Man works as the Coens’ response to all those movie fanatics, me included, who spent so much time and energy trying to solve the mystery of Anton Chigurh’s disappearance at the end of No Country for Old Men. It’s true: when film fans go too far down the analytical rabbit hole trying to find deeper meaning, we often lose sight of what’s going on above ground. Sometimes it is best to just “accept the mystery.” But, ironically, this isn’t one of those times. A Serious Man at face value isn’t worth all that much. Oh, sure, it’s finely crafted. It’s a professional film. Stuhlbarg is superb in the lead role. Fred Melamed gives one of the best supporting performances of the year as the passive-aggressive Sy Ableman. Fyvush Finkel shines in a brief role as the source of debate in the opening vignette. The writing is smart and the humor, while laced with some Jewish in-jokes, is universally accessible. Like the Jolly Roger motel to which Larry is banished, the world that the Coens create here – suburban Minnesota circa 1967 – is eminently habitable. But on the surface it’s just that. For A Serious Man to be anything more than a passing entertainment, you’ll have to refuse to accept it with simplicity. This is not nothing. This is something. And you can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math.