Primal Fear
by Michael Koresky

A Serious Man
Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, U.S., Focus Features

No one likes a big, meaty ferbissenah punim more than Joel and Ethan Coen. That is to say, the brother filmmakers, whose penchant for accessible eccentricity has made them America’s go-to just-off-mainstream directors, love to fill their wide screens with sourly expressive faces—the more contorted, enraged, or grotesque the better. This is one of the many reasons (along with such not insignificant matters as omniscient narrative detachment, region-specific parody, comic death scenarios, etc.) that the Coens are tagged as misanthropes: often their onscreen figures take on the mien of gargoyles. If this is the case, should we say their characters are reduced to mere objects, or elevated to statue status?

It’s conceivable that their simultaneous adoration and mockery of the human face and form, often captured in intimidating, distorting low-angles, hearkens back to some snide, untrusting view of adults forged in childhood. Yet thus far the Coens have never given us anything resembling a peek into their pasts, and even if they did intentionally, it would almost certainly be played as some sort of elaborate misdirect. But perhaps inevitably, something personal has surfaced. With their microscopic Godlike approach to character and their American cross-country-hopping—both of which have forced accusations of impersonality—it was only a matter of time before they ended up in the territory of A Serious Man, which some have regarded as a homecoming (a nostalgic term the Coens would clearly have no use for). Their depiction of the Jewish Minnesotan enclave (reportedly similar to that which they hail from), set in 1967, betrays nary a hint of sentiment or warmth, instead encased in the sort of x-ray-precise satire and stylistic exaggeration for which they’ve come to be known. They seem to have gone back to this autobiographical suburbia at this point in their career not to recapture some assumed essential truth about their pasts (see: Barry Levinson), but because it remains the most clearly appropriate setting for this particular, deeply sad comic rumination.

Though their work has dealt offhandedly in fate and spirituality (No Country for Old Men, portions of Raising Arizona and The Man Who Wasn’t There), the Coens have never ventured this far into religion before, and in so doing they seem to have dredged up a whole mess of primal nightmares. Of course the Coens treat these fears not with reverence, but with their customary existential pomp. A film about man’s unenviable position in deference to a judgmental, unresponsive God, A Serious Man might be the quintessential Coen film, or at least the one most thematically appropriate to their stylistic quirks and grim worldview. If they’re often accused of treating their mewling human beings as though puppets on strings, what better format for them than a Job story?

A Serious Man pulsates with Old Testament wrath, but while watching it one will probably be too caught up in its cataloguing of modern life’s mundane injustices to notice. This time, the Coens’ main doltish earthling is Larry Gopnik, a nudnik physics professor played by Michael Stuhlbarg, perfecting beady-eyed defeatism with an impressively restrained set of mannerisms. Considering the amount of cosmic shit piled high on Larry (and considering the Coens’ love of the wrenched facial spasm), Stuhlbarg could have easily erred on the side of the grotesque, but he keeps the spittling and frothing to a delightful minimum. Instead we get a masterful slow burn as Larry suffers one indignity after another: his glassy-eyed, loveless wife, Judith, demands a get (which everyone in the film seems surprised to learn is a Jewish ritualized divorce); Judith’s unctuous lover and hopeful new husband, the recent widower Sy Abelman—played with profoundly skin-crawling over-enunciation by Fred Melamed—confronts Larry with killing kindness; Clive Park, an eerily stoic Korean student who barely speaks English, pieces together enough words to bribe Larry for a passing grade; his human wreck of a brother, Arthur, has moved into his house while working on an indecipherable mathematical opus, and spends his nights locked in the bathroom, loudly draining his chronic cysts. Plus, Larry’s up for tenure, but anonymous letters keep getting sent to the higher-ups accusing him of loose morals. If he had any time for his two children, perpetually petulant Sarah and pot-smoking Danny, he’d probably notice their burgeoning angst, especially Danny, constantly in trouble with the teachers at Hebrew school and on the run from a local bully.

If all of these matters seem terribly average for the major plot points of a fist-to-the-sky “why me, God?” narrative, that’s largely the point. For a while, it seems as though A Serious Man is leaning too far in the direction of the put-upon white suburban male subgenre (in which Larry’s cuckolding at the hands of a heartless wife is the worst offense and the tantalizing possibility of sex with a statuesque, free-love-espousing neighbor is dangled with the promise of false redemption), but the Coens smartly use this basic template to branch off into far more idiosyncratic (read: Jewish) existentialism. The details of Larry’s miseries come to seem increasingly incidental: the fact of his suffering is the ultimate knowledge to be gained, both for him and for us.

Most Coen protagonists dig their own holes by making terribly poor decisions, whereas in A Serious Man everything appears to happen to Larry. His identification as victim clearly mirrors that of Jews in general, yet the film is more than just a contemporary allegory of centuries-old suffering. As evidenced by Larry’s series of dilemmas (what to do with Clive’s grade? how to face Sy without resorting to vengeful action?), it’s a morality tale, and an especially agonizing one: we may be helpless mortals living at the whim of an angry, uncharitable God, but our actions nevertheless do have consequences. So what’s life’s blueprint?

Rather than directly questioning the almighty (or “Hashem,” as he’s oft invoked here), Larry seeks solace by turning to a series of rabbis hilariously ill-equipped to grant it him. Each visited holy man gets successively older yet not noticeably wiser: the first, an obtuse novice, ruminates on the apparent natural beauty of a dingy parking lot as evidence of God’s work; the smug middle-aged second comes bearing a well-rehearsed anecdote (this visually illustrated dead-end tale of a dentist’s immobility in the face of possible supernatural intervention is one of the Coens’ most brilliant shrugs); the final, ancient and grizzled, barely has a moment to spare for Larry, although evidenced by the film’s last joke, he may have some words of wisdom to offer Larry’s son, as simplistic and true as the lyrics in pop piffle.

Loyal to the spirit of its conception, A Serious Man is dead serious about providing no answers, and anyone nonplussed by the ambiguity of the Coens’ No Country for Old Men, or perhaps as a better reference point, Barton Fink, are in for more drastically curtailed catharsis. From the opening sequence, a dramatized Yiddish folk tale about bad luck concerning an elderly visitor to a shtetl who may or may not be a dybbuk, to the furious climax, which unites the biblical and the Midwestern together in fell swoop, the film refuses respite or explanation. In between, its characters scramble through a simultaneously surreal and lethargic American everyday in which petty minutiae only temporarily distract from the bigger questions (typified, hilariously, by Larry’s constant pestering by Columbia House Records, demanding payment for albums his son ordered).

Though this is undoubtedly a sobering film, the Coens’ habit of skewering the very same things they sympathize with is always present. This opens them up to charges of stereotyping, and what with the paranoid, hypochondriac, bespectacled, soup-slurping, nose job–desiring yentas and schlemiels on display, A Serious Man has been identified as less than sensitive and more than a tad self-loathing. Regardless of the Coens’ satiric take on Judaism, religiously or culturally, their stylish outlandishness here makes sense, identifying the Gopniks and their ilk as properly out of the 1967 mainstream, aesthetic and otherwise. As usual for the Coens, it’s an outsider’s view, but this time it’s made by insiders. And that disconnect makes their ambivalence resonate differently than before; there’s a real fear trembling below the surface now. Something’s about to erupt, and all we can do is respond with a silent scream. And it all comes back to the face, mouth agape.