What is it with the Coen brothers, technical masters who tend to use their skills for no meaningful purpose? Their brilliant glibness is often a substitute for actual heart, their dazzling and meticulously engineered comedic mayhem is usually its own reward, if any is to be had. They are, in short, sometimes too smart for their–or our–own good. How, then, to explain their nearly flawless and almost profound new comedy, A Serious Man, which redeems their every cinematic sin in one shot?
At a glance, this is classic Coen brothers: Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a bland suburban university physics professor on a tenure track in the late-1960s whose life begins to come apart in that distinctly and blackly hilarious, Coen-esque way. His wife (Sari Lennick) announces her intention to leave him for perhaps cinema’s all-time smarmiest and most condescending character, the perfectly named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed, who would win an Oscar if the Oscars meant anything); his brother (Richard Kind) has installed himself on the couch and can motivate himself only to drain the sebaceous cyst on his neck; his son (Aaron Wolff) is a stoner delinquent; his daughter (Jessica McManus) is an eye-rolling, door-slamming teenaged pilferer whose highest aspiration is a nose job. Things go predictably downhill from here, and there’s barely a moment in the film when the audience feels as if anything good is in store for Larry or anyone else. There also isn’t a moment that’s anything less than hugely entertaining.
But Larry isn’t just another Coen brothers piñata. His trials—a thug goy neighbor intent on bullying his way over the Gopnik’s property line for the purposes of adding a boat shed; the failing student who first bribes Larry and then threatens to sue him; the anonymous letter-writer trying to sabotage Larry’s chance at tenure—are never purely for our enjoyment, and Larry, more than any other Coen brothers hero, deserves better not only by dint of his innocence, but because he is so earnestly devoted to an everyday idea of morality and righteousness. Larry is a man who wants to do right by God, to lead a serious and meaningful life. To this point he’s felt he has, but what is he to make of these turns of event? Is God angry with him? Is God trying to teach him a lesson?
Since this is a Coen brothers film, Larry’s asking the wrong questions of the wrong people. He turns to the comforts of his religion to put his troubles into some sort of context. The first rabbi he consults (Simon Helberg) is a feckless putz with the face of a teenaged Jerry Seinfeld who seems to think all the answers lie in the parking lot of the synagogue (“Just look at that parking lot, Larry!” he exalts). The second (George Wyner) is a serene but flip father figure who tells one of the best anecdotes in all of the Coen brothers’ work, the ultimate message of which seems to be: Nobody knows what the hell any of it means, so just carry on and have a cup of tea. The third (Alan Mandell) is the ancient rabbi, now retired, who sits in the shadowy silence of his office, refusing everyone but the freshly bar mitzvahed. This is the sage who surely must know God’s secrets, but when we finally hear what he has to say, we fully understand what we’ve suspected all along, not just throughout this film but ever since the Coen brothers first arrived 25 years ago with the neo-noir Blood Simple: that their God is at best indifferent, and at worst angry, and that the people we think most likely to have the answers are in fact more lost than anyone.
A Serious Man isn’t just a masterwork of gut-churning comedy that, like all great comedy, enlightens and instructs better than any drama could. It isn’t just the most spiritually insightful, if bleak, film in recent memory. It isn’t just a film that finally resolves the Coens’ gleeful resistance to depth. A Serious Man is so good it lends its greatness, in retrospect, to nearly every other film the thematically slippery duo have ever made. Even the throwaways and the trifles—Burn After Reading, for instance, or Intolerable Cruelty—are enriched by association. It’s almost as if A Serious Man is the Rosetta stone to films that can sometimes be difficult or impossible to understand except as passing entertainment. Look beyond the film’s usual Kafka-esque black comedy and you will see it considering very directly and earnestly nothing less than the meaning of life.
The directness of it all feels like something of a watershed for two filmmakers who have typically resisted analysis of their own films, and balked at meaning. There was an audible groan from the audience when A Serious Man ended somewhat suddenly but, in retrospect, perfectly. Some critics have even called the ending ambiguous, but don’t believe it: Though it leaves a few of the narrative particulars in question, that’s by design, and I can’t recall any film that makes a more definitive statement about its themes than this one. Its final image manages to be hilarious, terrifying, conclusive and insightful all at once. We know what the rest of the narrative holds for these characters, even if the Coens don’t put it on the screen.
The unthinking hipsters who’ve long adored the Coen brothers will continue to adore them, because the film’s weight is easy to miss if you want to, and its cruel pleasures are familiar. But it makes one wonder if the Coens are maturing (to use a condescending word Sy Ableman himself might have chosen). In 2007’s No Country for Old Men they tackled a lightweight work of a heavyweight writer, Cormac McCarthy, in what was a sporadically successful but ultimately awkward pairing. Their failure to do justice to a truly uncompromising novel, however, now seems beside the point: it could be that No Country was merely an indication of the Coens’ intention to begin using their talents in a more conclusive and, yes, meaningful way.