What a remarkable, peerless quality the Coen brothers possess. Unmatched by any other writer-directors working today — and possibly only rivaled in the annals of cinema by the likes of Stanley Kubrick, William Wyler, or Alfred Hitchcock – Joel and Ethan Coen have the ability to sit their audience down in front of a black screen and make them feel comfortable with two very important factors: 1) They will not understand everything that’s going on, and 2) they won’t care.
From Barton Fink (in which the playwright protagonist is unable to grasp what makes “a common man”) to The Man Who Wasn’t There (with its “modern man”), the films of the Coen brothers are always questioning not only their own characters, but a world that would elevate or condemn them. Meanwhile, these poor souls are left to gaze in awe at what kind of men they’ve been crafted to be and what is happening to them. Floods, UFOs, Viking queens, hula-hoops, greed, lust — it’s all part of the plan, which is to say, no plan at all. Nothing makes total sense, but in the hands of the Coens, it never needs to.
A Serious Man puts that talent to the test, just as Hashem appears to be testing its Job-like hero. Larry Gopnik (the wonderful theater vet Michael Stuhlbarg) is a Jewish physics teacher in 1960s Minnesota who finds out the following: He is being bribed; someone is sabotaging his tenure review; his wife is leaving him for his friend (the titular “serious man”); his neighbor is encroaching on his property; his brother is disturbed; his daughter is stealing from him; and his ungrateful son is a pothead. “Why is this happening?” Gopnik asks of no one in particular. “I haven’t done anything!”
Gopnik seeks answers from a series of rabbis who either will not speak to him or admit upfront that they don’t know anything. He finds brief comfort in his neighbor’s wife, which is interrupted by more trouble. And all of this is prefaced by a wonderful opening fable, performed in Yiddish, concerning demons and Jewish
Open-minded viewers, especially those with prior knowledge of Jewish family life and the religion’s rites of passage, will have much more fun with the “What does it all mean?” question than Gopnik himself. Talmudic philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argued that suffering, in and of itself, is meaningless and that recognizing and embracing that fact is key to human existence. In other words, roll with the punches. Gopnik’s scientific mind cannot break out of itself; there must be a final answer at the end of the formula, even while he cannot fathom the principle of the problem.
The Coens want their audience to come in further ahead of the game than Gopnik. The Yiddish fable has no conclusion, nor does a hilarious story one rabbi tells about messages hidden within teeth. For that matter, the film itself lacks a definitive ending. But the joy lies within the telling, and the sooner you appreciate that, the richer your experience will be.
— Justin Strout