“Accept with simplicity everything that happens to you”
The Coen Bros. are weird. Not David Lynch weird, but still weird. It’s as if they approach their projects with a self-serving ambivalence which, more often than not, manages to appeal to the (or rather, ‘an’) audience.
A Serious Man seems to exemplify that very idea. For an everyday audience the movie may be inaccessible; it is ambitious in the way that Coen Bros. jaunts often are (i.e. somewhat), but the darkly intelligent and absurdist humour which holds the film together is bound to go over the heads of the average moviegoer. This isn’t by any means a bad thing, as it draws on a twisted Woody Allen-esque pastiche of Jewish wit and neuroticism, but it’s bound to present a hurdle to some viewers and, at times, even utterly alienate the audience. I suppose however, that it’s par for the course when the movie is supposed to be a modernized reinterpretation of the Book of Job.
It begins with something of a Jewish folk tale. In an eastern European village, a Jewish man comes home during a snowstorm and tells his wife of the fortuitous occurrence of running into a man, during the dead of night, in the middle of a snowstorm, who helps him repair a broken cart. Even more serendipitous is the fact that the man is someone his wife knows, Rabbi Groshkover, and he has invited him home for soup. His wife responds, saying that God has cursed them, noting that this Rabbi had allegedly died three years prior. She proposes that he (or his body) is in fact, possessed by a dybbuk. When the Rabbi arrives, she confronts him but he laughs it off, which makes no bit of difference as she eventually stabs him. The Rabbi, seemingly shocked, confused and immune, but most certainly bleeding, says he ‘knows when he is not wanted’ and exits back into the snowstorm, leaving the true nature of the scenario, natural or supernatural, unclear.
The point is, thus, left brilliantly unresolved, in the way that only a fable based on implausibilities can be left unresolved. Understanding and remembering this is integral as it sets the tone for the entire movie.
Much of the movie’s humour comes from laughing at nothing more than sheer misfortune. Make no mistake--if you laugh you’ll mostly be laughing at the protagonist, rarely ever with him. Set in the 60s, Physics professor Larry Gopenik is leading what he considers to be a normal life. He’s in fairly good health, enthusiastic about his field of study and he’s a hair’s breadth away from tenure. Things aren’t perfect in his life, but they’re acceptable.
Except that his wife, for unspecified reasons, wants a ritual Jewish divorce or ‘get’ so she can then marry an elderly man who attends their synagogue. Larry’s son, 2 weeks away from his bar mitzvah, is more concerned about the $20 he owes to the neighbourhood bully/drug dealer for marijuana; his daughter in all her teen-queen angst is detached from the family and is stealing money directly out of his wallet for a nose job, his co-dependent brother is a socially stunted savant and a hypochondriac who spends ridiculous amounts of time draining the sebaceous cyst on the back of his neck. His wife’s elderly love interest keeps trying to befriend him while simultaneously giving him nuggets of his aged wisdom to help him deal with the divorce that he himself is instigating. Also, one of his students left what he thinks may be a bribe in his office. He’s not too sure of that bit. There’s a bit of a communication barrier- a ‘culture clash’, if you will. This is only the first 15 minutes. Yes, things do get exponentially worse.
The movie’s progression is similar to an earlier film by the directorial duo, The Big Lebowski, in that it never attempts to have any other direction but simply forward. Time passes. Things happen. Shit happens. The protagonist deals with it. Given the themes, it’s appropriate; it makes for great existential stimulation but some viewers aren’t going to be able to appreciate that at all. Honestly, it took me at least 20 minutes into the movie to realize that this movie didn’t care to adhere to the traditional storytelling format on which Hollywood films typically depend. One can just as easily say that nothing really happens and it would be a fair appraisal.
So why should you watch a movie where nothing happens? I have no idea. Ironically, this is what I consider to be one of the strong points of the film. The film’s charm lies discreetly in its approach to the mundane. It paints us a portrait of an insanely personal exploration of one man’s moral, psychological and spiritual journey through the suburban wastelands of the 1960s American Midwest. The film is hardly just about the man as it is about the time, the place, the experience - both Jewish and gentile - and the understanding and appreciation of each of the elements needed to make a decent modernization of the quintessential biblical comedy.
* Lesedi Tidd is a socialist existentialist, aka student, living in Trinidad.