You have to hand it to the Coen brothers: they never make the same movie twice. Their latest, A Serious Man , is an odd but worthy addition to the Coen catalogue. It’s a quirky, low-budget film steeped in Jewish culture and set in the bleakest imaginable outpost of 1960s suburbia, and it is essentially a philosophical meditation on the meaning of life, or lack thereof. Market that, suckers.
The title is ironic, of course: seriousness of purpose gets the main character, Larry Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) absolutely nowhere. He is a physics professor who is doing everything expected of him as a middle-class American—paying a mortgage, raising two kids, working conscientiously, even taking care of his hapless brother—but even so, his life begins to unravel in a series of random and unforeseeable events, starting with his wife wanting a divorce.
The clever part is that, in the classroom, Gopnik explains to his students two famous paradoxes of quantum mechanics—Schrodinger’s Cat and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle—as if he understands them. Both have to do with the more malleable aspects of perception and reality, but when these same paradoxes play themselves out in real life, Larry has no idea how to make sense of them, which leads to an existential crisis, which—because he is Jewish—eventually leads him to a rabbi or three.
Taken as a whole, the film ends up tripping (or at least stumbling here and there) over its own cleverness. It ends rather abruptly, with no resolution or explanation whatsoever (which is itself clever, philosophically speaking, since the movie is about the fact that life doesn’t necessarily make sense). But moviegoers who are not amused by philosophical mind games will likely leave the theater scratching their scrambled heads. That is, unless they’re content to enjoy Gopnik’s humorous journey into the abyss and don’t care if he ever finds a way out.
Being Jewish also helps. Because at its core, A Serious Man is really a movie about growing up Jewish in America, and—depending on how you look at it—how the ancient traditions of Judaism are a) inadequate for dealing with the existential problems of the late 20th century, or b) as strange and perplexing as they ever were, or c) hilarious if you’re high on marijuana, which the Coen brothers evidently were much of the time (by their own admission).
Much has been made of the autobiographical nature of A Serious Man , and the fact that it was shot here, but if there is a specific mention of the Twin Cities in the film, I missed it. There are plenty of humorous in-jokes that Minnesotans will catch, and even more in-jokes for those raised in a Jewish family, but what outsiders of both faiths are going to see is an intentionally bland Midwestern suburb of no particular distinction, and not much else. There are no identifiable landmarks other than a brief shot in a Red Owl. All the outdoor scenes are deliberately shot in a harsh, flat light, and most of the interior shots feature drab, colorless furniture that’s intentionally depressing. In contrast to the TV show Mad Men , which fetishizes the bric-a-brac of the 1960s, A Serious Man presents it as an era of unparalleled tastelessness, a period in time when it was necessary to get high just to escape the oppressive boredom of it all.
Throughout the film, Larry Gopnik endures one indignity after another—many of them hilarious, some just poignantly chuckle-worthy—and tries valiantly to figure out what he has done to deserve such a fate and what God’s hidden message to him might be. No one has an answer for him, especially the rabbis—and this seems to be the point: He is the butt of the great Cosmic Joke, brought to you by the Coen brothers, who aren’t inclined to let God off the hook. Jewish life is about struggle, after all, not happiness—and in the shit-storm of circumstances that is Larry’s life we can all see our own struggles, for which there is really only one sure-fire cure: a lively and resilient sense of humor.
A Serious Man is playing at the Uptown Theatre.