Ethan and Joel Coen’s filmic offerings are the kind that you either love or hate. Their penchant for dark comedy-drama is offbeat to say the least, and their latest production as writers/directors, A Serious Man, is a clear illustration of this. Loved by many critics and hated by the box-office, the film at least managed two Academy Award nominations, one for Best Picture and the other for Best Original Screenplay.
As usual, the Coen brothers present a story that is dark and well, odd, to say the least. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a meek physics professor at a small-time university somewhere in the Midwest. A series of tribulations befalls the faithful Jewish man. Not only does his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), want a divorce, she forces him to move out of their house and into the Jolly Roger motel down the road. She wants the more capable and aptly-named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) to live with her. Larry’s daughter also steals his money while his son, Danny, is very uninterested in his impending Bar Mitzvah. Someone is writing defamatory letters to the university to prevent him from getting tenure, while a student tries to bribe him for better marks. And he bears with it. Other critics have called Larry the modern day Job, and in a sense, he is: patient and annoyingly enduring.
A Serious Man is filled with many ‘unserious’ moments. Scenes like the one in which Larry’s son attends his Bar Mitzvah stoned, or the incessant calls from a salesman at the Columbia Records club demanding payment for orders Larry never sent, are full of uncanny wit. The Coens’s absurd sense of funny didn’t go down so well with the lady sitting next to me in the cinema, however. Her rumblings about the film being irritating distracted me almost as much as Larry is distracted by his female neighbour’s nude sunbathing. My (cinematic) neighbour kept complaining about how annoying the film is. And it is indeed incredibly frustrating watching the submissive Larry being walked over by everyone around him. At one point I had an intense desire to scream “Just tell them to go screw themselves!” And that is perhaps exactly what the Coen brothers intended: for the audience to experience the frustration of Larry’s seemingly meaningless life, rather than just watch it on screen.
The film essentially embodies Larry’s lectures on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which concerns Schrödinger’s Cat paradox. If you are scientifically-inclined, forgive my inadequacies regarding physics, but the paradox is basically about a cat in a box. Until you open said box, you cannot verify whether the cat is alive or dead. Therefore, it is both dead and alive at the same time, hence, the Uncertainty Principle. If you don’t understand this it doesn’t matter – quantum scientists themselves say that if you understand quantum, it means you don’t. Nevermind, the point is that the Uncertainty Principle that Larry enjoys teaching so much is the reflection of his own existence: is he really alive or dead?
Unlike Job, Larry questions God. He consults three different rabbis for advice on his crumbling life. All Larry really wants is to be respected, to practise his faith in peace, to be a serious man. He asks the universal question: “Why does God make us feel the questions if He’s not gonna give us any answers?” However, none of the learned men is able to give him any clarity. Thus, we return to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. As Larry tells his students, “It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on.” All that’s left is quiet acceptance and faith. Or is it?
Fans will (probably) like it. Non-fans (probably) won’t. As for those unfamiliar with the Coens, it’s like a cat in a box…
Rating: 3½ out of 5
Written & Directed by: Ethan and Joel Coen (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading)
Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind
Awards: Academy Award Nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay