It has not been easy to put to words what made A Serious Man, the new film written and directed by the Coen brothers, such a drag, but perhaps I can get at it this way. Their last movie, Burn After Reading, was a delightful farce about self-serious bureaucrats and needling nincompoops, but the playful tone was quickly shattered by the unceremonious and all-too-graphic murder of an innocent—as if the filmmakers splashed cold water on us so we’d sober up from their own antics. They then capped the movie off with a pat bit of exposition that flatly denounced the whole plot as a load of nonsense, unworthy of comprehension—I was now being thrown into a cold shower, and I wasn’t even buzzed. I knew the burlesque was frivolous, but isn’t that the fun of it? It’s as if the Coens had served us dessert, and then belittled us for eating it. Can’t we enjoy our ice cream without a punitive lesson in metaphysics, which is less a vitamin supplement and more a poison pill?
A Serious Man is like being pushed into a frigid lake. It has its moments, and its lapidary competence is nearly unassailable; but the damn thing weighs down on you like a sumo wrestler. It’s a demanding movie that inhabits your thoughts after it’s over, and I hesitate to begrudge it that; but they bounce back to the film rather than spring your mind forward. It’s an intellectual loop-the-loop that doesn’t increase your knowledge—it delimits it.
There’s really nothing else that can be done when you update the story of Job, laid now in suburban Minneapolis, circa 1967. This time around it’s Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg)—a milquetoast physics professor and family man—whose life falls apart. But two big players in Job’s tale are discreetly absented from A Serious Man: God and Satan, the gamblers who bet on whether he’ll crack. The Coens’ obsession with fate isn’t tacked on, as it was in Burn After Reading; it’s at the core of the conception. Given that the Coens have so obviously proven themselves as talented storytellers in the past, this fatalism seems—to me, at least—rather toxic. For starters, it’s an easy way out: You don’t need to have convincing characters with organic motivations if your point is that everything is consigned to some random higher power that exceeds the bounds of our understanding. I say this as neither an atheist nor a religionist, and certainly not as someone who thinks that movies should prove or disprove the existence of divine powers—something that, to its credit, this movie never does. But, as someone interested in dramatic fiction rather than pseudo-religious parables, this film is a cop-out. The Coens have mistaken theme for plot and constructs for characters; I came out feeling parched for something other than spiked holy water.
Within the terms the movie sets for itself, it doesn’t have to be coherent. Audiences and other critics seem to appreciate the movie’s ineffability; it’s like a Whitman’s Sampler with desultory little nuggets of Kafka and Borges, the Talmud and Jefferson Airplane—and, yes, Cormac McCarthy*. It’s delectation for your intellection, but nothing quite adds up. One of Larry’s pupils (David Kang), who understands physics but not the mathematics integral to it, seems—like Larry’s shiftless brother (Richard Kind), who has a meticulous, incomprehensible scheme worked out to cheat at gambling, but can’t seem to get his life on track (in part, perhaps, because he’s apparently gay); or Sy, the touchy-feely unctuous creep (a very funny Fred Melamed), who steals both Larry’s wife and the movie’s title (an indication that he “gets” Judaism); or the platitudinous rabbis whose bogus wisdom Larry seeks—to grasp something that Larry can’t. And the audience can’t. And the Coens can’t. In that sense, A Serious Man is actually a rather humble movie—or it would be if the Coens didn’t cast themselves as God.
The brothers have been masters of the minutiae throughout their career, and the setting of this movie has an extra layer of autobiographical irony, as they were born in the mid-1950s and raised by Jewish academics in Minnesota. But the brothers depersonalize the people of their youth so coarsely that you’d assume they grew up in an issue of Mad magazine. Larry’s wife Judith (Sari Lennick) has no decipherable motivation for leaving sweet schlemiel Larry for shifty Sy—everyone in the movie is as confused about her selection as we are. We don’t need to see what draws them (Judith and Sy or Judith and Larry) together because this is the story of Job, whose possessions and fortunes are all despoiled, so it’s just a given that Larry is robbed of her by some humiliating means. Everything is a given. If the Coens weren’t God, maybe they’d justify their actions. They just giveth and they taketh away.
I suppose it could be argued that we’re put in Larry’s position, that the Coens successfully convey the experience of spiritual unknowability. But the Semitic freak show they give us puts us in a position to condescend. It’s often entertaining in a crude, lowbrow sort of way that includes sitcom catchphrases (“I’ll be out in a minute!”) with peaks of Larry David-ish awkward comedy. And everything’s swathed in Roger Deakins’s handsome, static, important-looking photography, which reinforces our condescension by placing us at an ironic distance. There’s probably no other way to have shot the movie; any semblance of subjectivity (such as the trippy bar mitzvah skit) reveals how little there is to the subjects. Dynamic characters, endowed with free will, would clash with the brothers’ intention to create a fable—a limiting, didactic form in which, according to Anthony Burgess, “human character is set, stony, unregenerable.” Burgess wrote that his book A Clockwork Orange had “the quality of genuine fiction, an art founded on the principle that human beings change,” whereas Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation was a fable because the novel’s last chapter (in which the protagonist decides to change his ways) was lobbed off. The Coens are avowed fans of Kubrick and have taken on his worst qualities.
A Serious Man is obtuse; it dangles chances at deeper understanding in front of us, and then spritzes us with cold water every time we reach for the bait. At best, it’s trickery—not profundity. The movie exists to teach us a lesson: There’s no point in trying to understand the universe—life’s a bitch, and then you die, but you’re better off not being dead, so don’t quibble. The nuisance is not that the Coens’ “statement” isn’t sound, if rather pessimistically rendered, but that it’s utterly commonplace, given that we’ve just spent 105 minutes sinking in metaphysical quicksand. Martyrs, a French slasher, showed us how the the search for concrete answers to spiritual questions can amount to zealotry and evil; A Serious Man just tells us that higher answers are unattainable. This movie is so spare it’s primitive. If universal truths are off the table, I’d happily settle for the truth behind human interactions. I’d be happy too if the Coens retired from being schoolmarms, their recently adopted vocation, and resumed their calling as dramatists and filmmakers. Impregnable parables are no country for talented men.
*Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the boogeyman in No Country for Old Men, was rather like a supervillain in a world without superheroes; his gimmick was that he acted on the obscure whims of fate—like Batman’s Two-Face, who also flips a coin. But Chigurh somehow marked a decline in our traditional way of life. No Country was undoubtedly powerful, but not because it was “deep”; it coupled top-notch slasher effects with botched medievalism: it existed in a vacuum that was godless and yet, in which, men are still not free. Everything is consigned to amoral fate (i.e., the script), and there’s nothing we can do about it. That is just about the opposite of what makes good drama, but the Coens turned it into good theater; there was a haunting quality to the vast lonely landscapes—as if the sky weighed down the flatlands—coupled with the primordial fear of dying like cattle, and the soulful resonance of Tommy Lee Jones. Every wrinkle in his withered brow was like our fears made flesh; he was our humanity reflected back at us from an inhuman netherworld. I haven’t read the book, but McCarthy’s scenario seemed laced with the bedtime-story heebie-jeebies that affect one on a primal level (as the asceticism of his follow-up, The Road, does), and I think the Coens’ own childhood fears were exhumed. Their screenplay was rigged against its hero (Josh Brolin), but the movie was proficiently executed and devotionally felt; its cobwebbed, archaic attitudes added to the thriller effects, and made the film seem “heady.” There’s something to be said for how its makers cast anxiety’s hypnotic spell, which gave hopelessness a ballast in the crooked logic of our nightmares.