The experience of watching A Serious Man I can only describe as an ordeal. I sat squirming in my chair, fidgeting, and then finally thrashing — yes, thrashing — in frustration. It instilled a claustrophobia that made me want to claw out of my skin.
Is it a bad movie? I think our first question should be, is it a movie? There’s no recognizable human emotion in it, or a single scene that connects to any other scene. It plays like a Woody Allen film made by space aliens. What is it about? The futile search for meaning. For the main character and the audience.
Set in 1967, it stars Michael Stuhlbarg, expressing a bewildered exasperation to match my own, as Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor in the Midwest who is so passive he barely registers as a living being. Things happen to him. His wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), announces abruptly that she wants to divorce him so she can marry another man, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Sy tries to smooth things over, speaking to Larry in soft, placating tones, I suppose to distract from the rottenness of stealing another man’s wife. “We’re gonna be fine,” he tells Larry after Judith has broken the news. We’re all in this together, except one of us isn’t.
Larry is being considered for tenure at his university. The department head continually visits his office to address concerns that will have absolutely no bearing on the tenure committee’s decision, but which obviously will. The committee has received anonymous letters impugning his character. More soft, placating tones, this time tinged with accusation.
Larry’s brother Arthur (Richard Kind) lives with the family; he’s a math genius but socially inept — autism is implicit but never specifically referenced. Larry’s son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is a pothead with an impending bar mitzvah; he spends most of the film evading his neighborhood drug dealer after his Hebrew school teacher confiscates his radio with his latest payment in it. There’s a Korean boy who bribes Larry for a better grade; the boy’s father threatens to sue Larry whether he accepts the bribe or not. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” could be the film’s tagline.
Larry just lays down and takes it. We pity him for being surrounded by such dreadful people, but can’t abide his willingness to take their abuse. What is the point of this shapeless, dreary slog from one indignity to another? I think it lies in Larry’s search for answers. What does Hashem mean to teach him by inflicting these sorrows on him?
He visits three rabbis for guidance. The first, youngest rabbi (Simon Helberg) offers useless platitudes and metaphors: “Look at the parking lot, Larry!” he says with wonder. The third rabbi, the oldest and wisest, cannot be bothered to see him at all. The second rabbi (George Wyner) tells a shaggy-dog story about a dentist who found Hebrew inscriptions on the back of a gentile patient’s teeth. The dentist searched far and wide for meaning, and ... that’s the end of the story. Seen in this way, as a desperate search for understanding, A Serious Man shapes up as the cosmic joke of a cruel and elusive God.
As I write about its themes, I find them interesting, but writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, No Country for Old Men) have produced a vacuum where a movie should be. Their story lacks even the structure of the rabbi’s dentist yarn; to call it a story at all would credit it with a form it doesn’t have. Their characters’ rigidly mannered speech and behavior grind away at the nerves. Any human connection we make, they quickly thwart.
The problem is that the Coens never identify with Larry in his quest to understand a punishing God. They identify with God, and do nothing but punish. Larry suffers, and so do we.