By Aaron Mesh
Beset by troubles, Larry Gopnik goes to the rabbi—actually, he goes to a series of rabbis—and requests an explanation. He has, after all, been a good man, a serious man. The rabbis say he should maybe not complain so much; they say he should let it pass. Larry finds these comforters unsatisfying.
“I don’t want it to just go away,” he cries. “I want an answer!”
Finally, Larry gets some good news: One of his lawyers has found an ingenious solution to a property-line dispute with his neighbor. The attorney settles in, adjusts his paperwork—and drops dead. Maybe Larry should take this as a warning.
An injunction from the medieval French sage Rashi opens the movie: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” If only Larry would take that advice. A physics professor living in a tract neighborhood as treeless and sun-scorched as the Holy Land, Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) is suffering the inverse afflictions of Job—while the patriarch lost his family, Larry’s relations won’t go away. His wife (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce so she can marry the astonishingly supercilious Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), but she won’t leave the house. His brother (Richard Kind) has taken up on the couch. His kid (Aaron Wolff) calls Dad at the office to demand he fix the television antenna. There are more harassing calls from a student who sinisterly tries to bribe his way out of a failing grade, and Larry’s tenure request is met with the ominous assurance, “You should not be worried.” Oh, Larry is worried. He senses a bottomless abyss beneath his life.
If A Serious Man provides no more consolation than the biblical tragedy it repeats as farce, the movie at least resolves where Joel and Ethan Coen picked up their obsession with fearsome men barricaded behind big desks: It was those rabbis. Like Larry’s perpetually stoned son, the Coens grew up in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, and it would be fair to call A Serious Man their delayed retort to their Hebrew schooling—if it weren’t so clearly an extension of what they’ve been arguing all along.
The Coens see people occupied with petty concerns, and they’d rather smite than spite. This is their third straight film—after No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading—to repeat the same gag, with increasing mirth and finality: Don’t look down because there isn’t anything there.
A Serious Man ends about 10 minutes before one expects it to, with brutal, beautiful abruptness—no one does endings like the Coens because they understand that every story ends the same way. They’ve been wrestling with God a long time, and they know his moves. Don’t worry about being a good boy, they warn. There isn’t much time. You better find somebody to love.
A Serious Man
Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
With Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick and Aaron Wolff