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The Brothers Coen have made lots of films, many of them superb. They’ve been at it for a while. They’re critical darlings to this day, and everything they make is taken seriously, no matter how ludicrous it might be. And with No Country for Old Men, they received the highest possible honours Hollywood can bestow upon itself, guaranteeing them first dibs on any projects they could ever want, as long as they don’t cost too much.
Despite long careers working together, A Serious Man, of all their flicks, is the most overtly Jewish thus far (in terms of content and themes). I know that sounds odd, or vaguely anti-Semitic, but it’s not intended as such. They’re not working from an adapted screenplay, so it’s a story they themselves have written, which contains a lot of detail (I think) from their early lives. It also explicitly uses elements of the Jewish faith and the Jewish experience in America in the story it has to tell, which seems to be based on the Book of Job, amongst other things. And you can’t really get more Jewish than the Torah, can you?
And what a kick-ass blockbuster story it is! Our main character Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg), is a mathematics associate professor desperate for that most academic of Holy Grails: tenure. Right from the start, after a very strange intro involving some Yiddish peasants fighting over whether their guest on a cold, stormy night is alive or dead, Larry’s life starts falling apart for no discernible reason.
His tenure becomes tenuous, a disgruntled student alternately threatens and bribes him for a failing grade resulting from Schrodinger’s Cat (whether it’s alive or dead is irrelevant right now), his wife wants to leave him for a guy called Sy Ableman, his kids are alternately a chronic dope smoker about to have his bar mitzvah who’s obsessed with F Troop, and a junior version of Barbara Streisand.
Almost every other character in the flick says Sy Ableman’s name in this really curious way, most often with hushed tones of respect, or with incredulity, as in “Sy Ableman? Sy Ableman?!?!”
Plenty more shit starts to go wrong, in ways that almost seem like either bad luck or like Larry himself is being cursed by God for something he did or didn’t do. Larry’s a mathematician, though, and a rational (though not the “serious” man of the title) man, so he has no truck with concepts as nebulous as luck or destiny, because it’s all about randomness, probabilities and uncertainty principles and other such foofaraw.
Still, he starts to wonder why everything is going wrong. Everything that can go wrong seems to, which, in a world of probabilities, is all very unlikely. He is, after all, an observant Jew who is instructed by the various rabbis he approaches for advice to not lose hope and to see what they call Hashem in the world. Hashem is a word used very frequently in the film, which (I’m not pretending I knew this factoid before writing this review) means ‘the name’. It’s used in place of God, since to use the word for God, being Adonai or variants thereof, is to break the commandment against taking God’s name in vain.
Personally I find it hilarious that they have to use a euphemism from the Old Testament to not blaspheme, because it makes the God of the Tribes of Israel seem like Voldemort, who used to be constantly referred to as He Who Must Not Be Named. But if everyone knows who you’re referring to, isn’t it pretty much the same thing as saying the fucker's name? Doesn't "He Who Must Not Be Named" become his name as well?
It’s why tv shows that use an obvious substitute, like, let’s say “frak” in place of “fuck” have a special place in my frakking heart. When you have a bunch of angry people standing around screaming frak you at each other, you really wonder why they have to bother covering up the obvious, and whose delicate sensibilities are being spared.
Who are we to question The Name, anyway? Who is Larry, plagued by trials and tribulations, to question Hashem? But what really bugs Larry is not whether Hashem is testing him, but why? How do you answer a question that you don’t understand and that hasn't been asked?
His second trip to a somewhat more seasoned rabbi leads to the telling of a sublime tale that has, as its punchline, a line so simple and yet so funny that I exploded with laughter when I heard it. I won’t spoil the punchline, but the story relates to a member of Rabbi Nachtner’s congregation (or whatever the appropriate Jewish word is) who is an orthodontist, who finds, inexplicably, a message from Hashem on the inside of a gentile’s teeth. In Hebrew letters are the words “Help me, Save me.” The orthodontist, perplexed, tries to find out from the rabbi, from anyone he can ask as to what the message means, and what Hashem expects him to do about it.
The story, in the tradition of the classic kinds of Borsht Belt jokes that I can’t help but think the Coens are referencing / parodying, gets longer and more involved as it goes on before it peters out. And whilst I found it hilarious, Larry is left even more confused at the end of it, and even more perplexed as to what he should do, and how he should see the continuous stream of bad luck coming his way.
Even more bad things keep happening, but the delightfully played Larry, who seems like a cross between a slightly nerdier Joaquin Phoenix and every nervy Jewish comic / stereotype who’s ever graced a stage or an early Woody Allen film, buckles but doesn’t collapse beneath the weight of all these mocking burdens. And even when things start looking up, the essential randomness of his universe means that there is no gentle resolution at the end that ties everything neatly in a way that gives the audience comfort in the form of a benevolent universe that gives a damn about what happens to us.
A lot of people were angry at the end of No Country for Old Men, because they felt the ending lacked the elements of closure and resolution that they so desperately crave. Those same people, watching the end of this flick, could have their eyeballs explode with rage if they’re not careful. It’s an ending deliberately calculated to annoy the viewer, only in the sense that there’s supposed to be a gasp of incredulity, followed by a wry grin as we adapt to the idea that that really is it.
And what an ending it is. Despite the film’s score, which almost seems like it’s out of a deeply unsettling horror flick, it’s important to remember that this is meant to be a funny film. The Coen Brothers, I think, have created a form of cinematic comedy all their own, in that it rarely results in outright laughter, but more in wry grins. The Kafkaeqsue elements, such as the situation with the Korean student and his father trying to catch Larry in a double-bind in order to get their way, or Larry’s harpy wife screaming at him to calm down and to stop being unreasonable when he’s calmly wondering what to do, or his repugnant brother Arthur screaming in tears about how unfair it is that Hashem gave Larry everything and him nothing, is the stuff of purest irony, and calculated strictly for laughs. As to whether most people would think it was funny, well, I very much doubt it. They can do broad comedies successfully (Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou), unsuccessfully (Burn After Reading, Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty), and comedies black as pitch (Fargo). Yes, they can do it all, the talented bastards.
The thing is, it all seems like a drama, and if it’s not taken seriously, as in, that the struggles of Larry Gopnick really matter, and the repercussions of his actions or inactions are serious, then it seems like a pointless exercise in amusing irony.
But that’s the main reason why I think it’s so funny. It’s funny because it’s seriously absurd, and because Larry is no more master of his fate, whether there’s a Hashem or not, than anyone else. The ending, which even goes so far as to imply that an action Larry performs, right towards the end, could have dire consequences, is even more defeating of that thesis considering the way we’re left hanging.
If anyone apart from Jewish directors constructed such a cast of Jewish stereotypes in the one place, the cries and allegations of anti-Semitism would echo from here to the Wailing Wall, but that’s okay. They’re allowed to get away with it. I don’t know if it was done with affection, but it hardly matters to me. The Coens are remembering (for us) many elements of their lives growing up Jewish in Minnesota in the 60s, and if they can’t have a laugh about it then who can? If Larry is a fictional homage to their own dad, then I would say it was a very affectionate portrait of a humble and harried man, and an era I’m glad I was born too long after never to have to experience first hand.
I found it fucking hilarious, but, then again, I’m strange that way
8 times I really thought that sexy neighbour was offering something completely different from a joint out of 10
“Please. Accept the mystery.” – A Serious Man