The Coen brothers’ new movie, A Serious Man, would have been better named for the brothers themselves: Two Unserious Men. They continue to infuriate as they have infuriated in every movie they have made since Fargo (at least), both the better and the worse: that is by being incapable of seriousness, even when dealing with the most serious subjects. And this one, meant to be a sort of Biblical Job-story updated and transplanted to a Minnesota college campus in 1967, is (potentially, at least) about as serious a subject as they come. Not serious enough, apparently. For the brothers are at it again, carrying on their argument with God — a God they assume doesn’t exist — from No Country for Old Men. There, God’s non-existence was kind of serious because the movie posited in His place a merciless cosmic sadist. It was Thomas Hardy’s bitterly ironic “President of the Immortals” brought back for one more turn on the cosmic stage.
A Serious Man finds Him more persuasive as a supernal Prankster whose best joke is to make Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), the “serious man” of the title, think He exists and so try to placate Him when all the sorrows of the world — or at least all those most likely to beset a middle-class American family in the 1960s — come upon him. You know that program on Spiked TV called “1000 Ways to Die”? This movie attempts a similar sort of entertainment. The artifice of its construction, together with the jokes, acts as a kind of permission for us to laugh at the misfortunes of others in the same way that the anonymity of the TV program does. Sub specie aeternitatis, Larry’s successive tragedies are really comedies, which is the source of the irony in the title. It’s also the reason why this God, unlike the Deity of the Old Testament, is made to pull his punches, at least up until the end.
The movie begins with an apparently unrelated episode set in a Polish shtetl a century or so ago and presented entirely in Yiddish. Velvel (Allen Lewis Rickman) comes home with the news that his wagon has broken down on the road, and a man has come along to help him. He tells his wife, Dora (Yelena Shmulenson), that she knows the man. But when he names him, Dora shrieks: “We are ruined!” The man, it seems, has died three years ago and, if he is now wandering the roads, he must be a dybbuk or ghost. Then the man himself (Fyvush Finkel) arrives. Velvel refuses to believe that he is a dybbuk, but Dora remains unshaken in her conviction and stabs him in the heart with an ice pick. A little blossom of blood eventually appears, and the man staggers out into the snow. Was he man or dybbuk? Are they cursed by his visit or, as Velvel now believes, by having murdered him? Either way, things do not look good for them — or, we might add, for European Jewry.
All this is apparently in illustration of the film’s epigraph: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” How do you intend that ironically? Well, if anyone can do it, the Coens can. Now we fast forward to Larry who has to deal with an unfaithful wife (Sari Lennick) who wants a divorce; the unwelcome but affectionate attentions to him of her lover (Fred Melamed); poison pen letters that are being sent to the tenure committee now sitting on him at the university; an attempted bribe from a failing Korean student (David Kang) and threats of violence against him from the student’s family; a free-loading brother (Richard Kind) with a revolting illness and in trouble with the police; a pot-smoking teenage son (Aaron Wolff) in trouble from bullying drug dealers, and a vain, moody and unpleasant daughter (Jessica McManus); a goyish gun nut of a neighbor (Peter Breitmayer) on the one side of him, who is encroaching on his property, and a Jewish seductress (Amy Landecker) on the other side, who is luring him into an encounter with what she coyly calls “the new freedoms.”
Well, these are not exactly the afflictions of Job. But to top them all off, a tornado and a worrying diagnosis from his doctor arrive at the same time — and there the film ends. Obviously, the tornado and the coming meeting with the doctor could, jointly or severally, represent misfortunes to dwarf all those we have seen up to that point — so great, indeed, as to spoil the amusement we are accustomed to taking in Larry’s misfortunes. In the same way, we never learn in what, if anything, the putative curse on Velvel and Dora in the prologue might have consisted. That, too, might have made things too serious and, so, unfunny. If God is the Prankster he is here presented as being, he’s a lot more tender-hearted than the Sadist of No Country. As usual with the Coen brothers, we are left with nothing of truth or reality, either natural or supernatural, but only a statement of the state of the Coen brothers’ minds. They are, it seems, like the character in Peter DeVries’s novel The Blood of the Lamb of whom it is said that “he could not forgive God for not existing.” But the revenge they take on Him in A Serious Man seems to me less mocking than pathetic.