“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” The Coen brothers’ A Serious Man opens with this quote from Rashi, the first of many times that the central idea is stated in the film and, yet, A Serious Man remains one of their most perplexing films to grasp. It’s been called a retelling of the Book of Job, misery porn, and brilliant. Perhaps, seeking an interpretation is missing the point. It could very well be that we are not supposed to know beyond what is told to us by the film. What is obvious is that it is a fascinating work, darkly funny, and alluringly enigmatic.
The opening, which relates to the bulk of the film only by theme, is in itself a golden nugget of filmmaking. Set almost sixty years before in a snowy Polish village, it is told in the style of an old village folktale. At once, it sets the tone of the film which is in the great Coen tradition of turning tragic misfortune into dark humor. It also presents another framing of the theme. Misfortunes happen. The Coens excel at unexpected reactions that shift the mood and this prologue offers some of their best examples. A husband returns to the cottage and tells his wife that along the way he encountered a kindly villager who helped him fix his carriage. In horror, his wife replies that the villager in question has been dead three years and they have been cursed with the presence of a dybbuk. As tension builds and a chill runs down our spine, the husband reacts with…laughter. He doesn’t believe in such things. But fear comes rushing back when we hear a knock on their door…
When the film flash forwards to the main story set in 1967, the film’s basis on ancient legend becomes the mold of the entire film. What Job endured in the Old Testament becomes now the ordeal of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a mild-mannered physics teacher.
Stuhlbarg was a great casting choice. If Woody Allen’s persona turned a shade darker, he would be much like Stuhlbarg’s embodiment of Larry Gopnik: bespectacled, comically awkward, controlled reactions, although teetering on the neurotic side. It’s fun just watching Larry talk his way out of situations, as when one of his students offers him a bribe to pass the class. What’s interesting in this scene is that despite Larry’s intellect and firmness, the student still has control of the situation.
The Coen brothers understand that one of the fundamental keys of comedy is turning what would be sad, upsetting, or annoying in real-life into a laugh. A Serious Man demonstrates this gift while balancing it with unease. Because they are so ironic, every bump that befalls upon poor Larry is a joke, but the consequences are just a little too real to be entirely laughed off.
Things are looking very bad for Larry. His wife (Sari Wagner Lennick), a selfish and inconsiderate woman drops the news on him that she is leaving him for Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a family friend, who is even more despicable; pretending to be a friend to Larry while patronizing the pathetic little man. Every one, including the student trying desperately to pass and his own kids, can manipulate Larry.
The thing about Larry is that he doesn’t need any of these antagonists to cooperate. On his own he is smart, sincere, and professional. He comes across as really the most likeable character in the film, but even here we shouldn’t pass easy labels. Stuhlbarg said that in some ways Larry isn’t such a great guy. He’s neglected his family, causing their indifference to him. The Coens populate their films with characters we don’t know quite how to take. Here, the lines are more clearly drawn. Larry is nicer than most of their protagonists and the antagonists more off-putting as a result.
But whether or not people deserve their fate is a question that the Coen brothers have long considered irrelevant. They played with the futility of such a question dramatically in No Country for Old Men. A Serious Man is satirical but their conclusions are the same. In life we often get what we don’t deserve and don’t get what we do deserve. When Larry does seem to be getting what he deserves (a tenured position), bad news is just around the corner, while his student seemingly gets away with a passing grade that he didn’t earn.
“I haven’t done anything,” Larry yells at a representative of a record company billing him for albums he didn’t order. But what Larry doesn’t get yet is that in life we don’t have to do anything necessarily for unfortunate things to happen.
A Serious Man is a distinctly Jewish film both culturally and philosophically, peppered with statements conveying the theme, (e.g. “It’s not always easy to decipher what God is trying to tell you.”) Its central mystery is why things happen to Larry. There is no answer. Things just happen and, to quote the rabbi in the film, “We can’t know everything but helping others can’t hurt.” A Serious Man is a movie about things happening, Anton Chigurh’s idea of a joke.