A Serious Man opens Friday
The Coen Brothers don't care what I think of their latest movie. Nor, judging from their annoying but pleasantly perplexing comedy, do they care what anyone thinks about it.
A Serious Man takes place almost exclusively in 1967 in the Jewish community of a small town in Minnesota that the '60s hasn't fully reached. Meanwhile, physics professor Larry Gopnick's life is falling apart. His wife is leaving him for a widower whose dearly departed is "barely cold," his brother is in trouble with the law, the father of a student he's flunking is threatening a lawsuit and—disaster of all disasters—F-Troop is coming in fuzzy. By the end of the film, the Coens imply that the storm of the '60s counterculture is revolutionizing everything in its path with the force of a tornado. The claim is reductive, but the tension they derive from placing their story on the perch of social upheaval is potent.
While this is in many ways an unlikable film with questionable intent, it would be irresponsible not to marvel at its formal efficiency and reckless dark nihilism. As demonstrated by Larry's laughable search for advice, the ideas and opinions of others are at best amusing trifles. There can be no insight, because life is a sequence of absurd mistakes. Standing before his students, Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) constructs a formula on a massive chalkboard, offering mathematical proof that nobody knows anything.
A Serious Man is not a serious movie, but it demands a complicated response. How annoyed can you allow yourself to be by the needling assault of a movie so willfully and masterfully grating?
Most scenes are shot in aggressive closeup, as if merely being near the people onscreen should elicit laughter from the viewer. And judging from the audience with whom I viewed the film, the device works. While the motivation for constant closeups is misanthropic, deviations from it, like the waist-up shot that consistently frames one of Larry's colleagues, achieve an eerie sense of distance. The performance of Adam Arkin as Larry's divorce lawyer is metronomically exact enough to work in a David Mamet film, but somehow feels incredibly fresh instead of studied or pretentious. And, counterintuitively for filmmakers who so coldly approach their subjects, there is real life in the one erotic moment: It's not the full frontal nudity or the brief sex scene, but the startling sexuality of a woman's armpit that gives A Serious Man its powerful carnal jolt.
A Serious Man refers to aspects of Jewish culture, like the dybbuk (a dead soul inhabiting a living body), Hashem (literally, "the Name") and—in a running gag—a get, or a ritual divorce, a word that even a junior rabbi doesn't recognize. The Coens use Judaism to infuse their dialogue with semicodified language, in case you are foolish enough to think something meaningful is encrypted within. This gives you the feeling that their characters aren't the only people in the theater whom the Coens are mocking.
I share, more or less, the Coens' skepticism about a meaningful universe. And it's impossible to begrudge them the near-perfect methods of their mockery. Nonetheless, I don't appreciate that they seem to think their worldview insulates them from caring about their characters or their story.
The Coens have built in time for derisive giggles: Shots of amusing-looking characters occasionally begin with silent pauses that allow for a few yuks before the scene moves on. Those pauses are not mistakes; none of the timing of A Serious Man is haphazard. The repeated shots of Larry's son running from the school bus to the front door carry a perfectly timed percussion that could be dropped into any scene of the film without disrupting the rhythm.
Yet unlike the slapdash slapstick of Burn After Reading, the Coens' new film has a rigidity that contrasts with the chaos of its protagonist's life. A feeling of hyperorganized absurdity pervades the film, providing both its energy and obnoxiousness.
That is what is so bothersome about A Serious Man: Chaos has never felt so precise, and it seems dishonest. The Coens have a snarky "no one can save you" attitude about their characters, but their guiding hand is oppressively present. It's like watching a videotape of someone being beaten to death. Why isn't the person with the camera running for help? Maybe because in the world of A Serious Man, trying to help is one of the biggest shams of all. Even a rabbi who gleefully embraces life's meaninglessness isn't safe from scorn, which makes the extent of disdain these filmmakers have for their own creations clear: If you're a character in a movie by the Coens, you can't even win by getting on their side.