“When the truth is found to be lies / And all the joy within you dies / Don’t you want somebody to love?” —Jefferson Airplane
In 1991, Roger Ebert pinpointed a recurring image in Joel and Ethan Coen’s films—namely, the sight of “crass, venal men behind desks, who possess power the heroes envy.” He was reviewing the wonderful Barton Fink, but the pair’s filmography up to that point was rife with examples: Blood Simple’s slimy detective, Raising Arizona’s glib furniture salesman, Miller’s Crossing’s vengeful mob boss (Albert Finney, in a criminally underappreciated role).
That was nearly two decades ago. Ethan and Joel Coen have since been rightfully recognized as two of the most masterful, visually inventive, and, well, genre-defying filmmakers of our generation. Who else, save perhaps Tarantino, has so consistently combined critically successful artistry with commercial appeal? Think of the wood-chipper scene, the heart-stopping coin toss, the eccentric dialogue (“Donny, you’re out of your element!”)—they’re all there, irrevocably ingrained in our cultural consciousness.
But still, the Coens are guilty as charged: the powerful, maybe-sorta-evil, gruff man-behind-the-desk figure reigns supreme. In their latest project, A Serious Man, I think this “type” might be personified by the rabbis—three of them, in fact, into whose offices our desperate, tortured antihero, Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), stumbles, begging religion to make sense of his senseless misfortunes: his crumbling marriage, his bizarre professional problems, his do-nothing brother. These scenes, which unfold with the elegant desperation of a mob boss meeting, exemplify the Coens’ wonderful dialogue and their propensity for drawing out scenes to an absurd limit. And they’re hilarious: the rabbis talk in circles, share long-winded parables about dentistry, wallow in bureaucracy. Is religion a comfort? Or just a pointless distraction?
Maybe it’s both. And maybe the man behind the desk is God himself, whose existence—or mercy—the film never stops questioning. I’m reminded of Scorsese’s After Hours: there, too, we had a viciously cruel supreme being, dumping one calamity after another on a hapless protagonist. In one of A Serious Man’s cruelest ironies, Larry is a physics professor, and his subject appeals to him because it makes sense—in all the ways fate does not. Isn’t physics always a foil to the distinctly illogical nature of life? In one of the smartest gags, we see Larry scribbling equations on a blackboard. The camera zooms out, revealing the Uncertainty Principle in all its looming horror, towering over him, practically swallowing him whole. In another, he’s on the phone with a Columbia Records Club salesman. Or is it God on the line? “I don’t want ‘Santana, Abraxas’!” Larry cries. “I didn’t ask for ‘Santana Abraxas’!” But life doesn’t work that way.
I’ll be blunt: A Serious Man is a wonderful film, and it stands up with the Coens’ best work. It’s deeply funny, but it’s in the same dark, unnerving vein of Fargo, Barton Fink and Blood Simple. It’s moving, too, with all the elements we’ve come to love in this pair’s film: the compelling cinematography, the open ending, the sheer disregard for genre boundaries, the eccentric characters that nonetheless ring with truth. Scenes are never mere devices in a plot; rather, the Coens take joy in every shot, every frame—in the act of filmmaking itself.
“Variety”’s Todd McCarthy describes A Serious Man as “the kind of picture you get to make after you’ve won an Oscar.” What he means to say, I think, is that it’s hard to imagine the Coens pitching this one to a money-hungry executive: “Okay, so it’s a rumination on fate, Judaism, and Physics—and the Jefferson Airplane . . . Well, I mean, there’s this guy—a professor—and his life falls apart, so he goes to see these rabbis, and there are no name actors and no appealing plot and few likeable characters, and it’s filled with all these Jewish references bound to confuse goyim . . . Maybe it’s the first Jewish existential black comedy? Whatever. Good luck advertising it.”
But it has more in common with No Country for Old Men than McCarthy might realize. A Serious Man, too, broods over questions of randomness and fate. And like that Oscar winner, it first opened with a limited distribution, only to build up critical acclaim and word-of-mouth praise. Maybe it will reach the same victory at a certain awards ceremony in March. But maybe it won’t, and that’s fine, too. This is a film for the ages. We might as well accept the mystery.