Rating: 4 out of 5
Those who sit through the end credits of A Serious Man will be treated to this disclaimer: “No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture.”
That claim is disputable, for the Coen brothers’ latest film, a modern take on the Book of Job, is populated with unsavoury Jewish characters, played by Jewish actors, all stricken by God’s inscrutable rage.
It’s also a beautifully-structured narrative that sticks the middle finger at the conventions of Hollywood story-telling.
The film begins with aYiddish folk-tale of unknown (I suspect fictional) origins. A Jewish peasant invites an old tzadik, a righteous messenger, into his cottage for a bowl of soup. But his wife is certain that the geriatric is a dybbuk, a ghost, and stabs the old man in the chest.
A few generations later (i.e. the 1960s), in another suburban shtetl (town) in the American Midwest, God appears to avenge his envoy by taking things out on an ordinary and largely innocent devotee.
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, appropriately bewildered) is a self-doubting, God-fearing college physics professor, who falls victim to an excruciating series of familial, financial and medical disasters.
On the domestic front, his wife Judy (Sari Lennick) has been bonking a prosperous and utterly sanctimonious family friend, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), and is pressuring Larry for a divorce he can’t afford. She’s kicking him out of the house, to boot.
Then there are the two Gopnik brats: a pot-smoking TV addict who flounders through his bar mitzvah; and an ugly whining vainpot obsessed with plastic surgery.
Finally, there's Arthur (Richard Kind), Larry’s hapless layabout of a brother who, when he’s not hogging the couch or toilet, is ranting at Hashem (God) for giving him nothing in the world worth smiling about.
At work, Larry is hounded by other problems; a Korean student (David Kang) is constantly bribing or black-mailing him for a grade-change; a record store keeps calling him to dun him for a membership he never subscribed to; his upcoming promotion is being threatened by a series of anonymous character assassins.
But instead of cursing God on a metaphorical heath, or taking out his frustration on the neighbourhood temptress (a sun-tanned shiksa – a disparaging term for non-Jewish woman – played to archetypal perfection by Amy Landecker), Larry burrows deep into the mathematics of fate – Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is the filmmakers’ chosen metaphor for Larry’s existential plight – and seeks out three arch rabbis for an explanation to his suffering.
The rabbis' words of advice are as opaque as Larry’s troubles are persistent. Larry, stoically, almost heroically, refuses to give up, taking the shit as it comes. The fact of the matter is, he would rather live in perpetual torment, questioning the motives of Hashem, than succumb to the apparent nihilism of his other gods, the Coens.
For his unwavering if somewhat clumsy faith, Larry is treated to a fate far worse than his Biblical counterpart. The Coens don’t restore Larry’s health, wealth and happiness, the way God restores Job’s; instead, they devastate him - and his community – with an unnaturally-created natural disaster, a deus ex machina swirling with horror and glee.
A Serious Man is a seriously Jewish film that goes beyond the issue of Jewish faith. Whether the Coens are mocking the spiritual foibles of Conservative believers, or satirising (their own) Jewish self-hatred, is rather besides the point.
Their film is a clever, cruel allegory about man confounded by a God who is at best comically vengeful, and at worst indifferent and silent.
I left the movie theatre laughing, wincing, stimulated, stunned.
Ken Kwek is a playwright and screenwriter. His film credits include The Ballad of Vicki and Jake (2005), The Blue Mansion (2009) and the forthcoming Kidnapper (2010).