Why is this film different than all other films?
The Coen brothers' newest is one of the most Jewish-centric American films I've seen in a long while. As a lapsed Jew who's gone through my own existential crises, I found it especially fascinating. The film, like the Jewish faith, centers on questions and doesn't provide all the answers, and like my people it is gifted with a dark sense of humor and an often bleak worldview.
A Serious Man begins with a prologue, a darkly comic Yiddish folk story whose own ending is open-ended and foreshadows everything to come, including the main film's conclusion as well. And the Dybbuk-cursed 1960s world in which we then shift is at once dreamlike and a nightmare (and the film contains dream nightmares within the waking nightmare), as if David Lynch soaked his brain in the Talmud. But the blandly manicured Minnesota landscape of A Serious Man is unique, to both the time and place, as well as to the Coens' unmistakable perspective. It's every bit as distinct as their more WASP-inhabited wintertime Minnesota seen in Fargo, but also seemingly more autobiographical than any of their other films -- at least regarding the characterizations and the spot-on recreation of Synagogue Suburbia.
Michael Stuhlbarg, whom I saw on stage in New York several years ago with Billy Crudup in The Pillowman, and he was excellent even if I'd forgotten his name until this film came out, more than carries the film's burden. Neither too caricatured nor too milquetoasty, Stuhlbarg's Larry Gopnik with his black rimmed glasses and astonished-at-the-world expression seems at first a cousin to John Turturro's Barton Fink but Gopnik's exasperation is more grounded in reality. The Coen brothers of course can always be counted on for spot-on casting (it should be noted that the casting directors here are Ellen Chenoweth, who has a most impressive list of credits, and Rachel Tenner; both have cast quite of the Coens' recent films). No famous names here, just a lot of terrific character actors who look like they could be distant (or not so distant) members of my own family. Fred Melamed, who's had a long but relatively under the radar career, stands out as the touchy-feely family friend that Larry's wife wants to run off with. I know some fellow members of the Tribe have felt that the Jews depicted here are too gargoylish and stereotypical, a viewpoint I am sympathetic to but disagree with; I'd argue that the film actually shows more compassion for the main characters here than many Coen brothers film that have preceded it -- particularly Larry and his sad, awkwardly closeted brother (played so sweetly by Richard Kind). And it's the ideas here that are meant to be provocative.
"I'm a serious man, Larry," Melamed's Sy tells the stunned Gopnik, and at his own funeral, the rabbi repeats the assertion. While in some ways the notion that someone is more serious than another is playfully mocked here as essentially meaningless -- who doesn't want to be seen as "serious"? -- the Coens are striving for something deeper here.
Larry, a physics professor, attempts to teach the Uncertainty Principle (in both reality, and even less successfully, in a dream), but has yet to come to grips with how the principle may reflect his own life.NY Times' critic AO Scott asks in his review of the film the appropriate question: "Are the Coens mockig God, playing God or taking his side in a rigged cosmic game? What’s the difference?"
The film's unsettling ending seems so perfectly Jewish and so perfectly apt given all that leads up to it. The Jewish faith explores life as questions that we spend that life trying to get the answers to -- some are answered, some are never answered, and sometimes the parking lot outside is more fascinating than you realize. But it's also a meditation on living a life, passively versus actively, and the things that happen to Larry may be happening to him because he has been passive for too long.
While the Dark Event (or event) that take place at the end is not quite akin to the Biblical plague of frogs at the end of Magnolia -- both deus ex machina but forgivable in this case because it is in fitting with the feeling we're all part of chaos theory being played out every day.Daiyenu.