By Devdutt Nawalkar
Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind
A Serious Man is the best Coen Brothers’ movie I’ve seen, and damned near being the best movie of 2009. It has been nominated at the Oscars for Best Picture, an honour I suspect it will end up losing to Avatar. Frankly, the Oscars don’t matter nor do the old coots that decide who wins. A Serious Man goes above and beyond generic platitudes, and deserves to be seen by all viewers appreciative of great cinema.
Larry Gopnik is a docile, and Jewish, high school Physics teacher, on the verge of receiving tenure, yet beaten and resigned to the routine of life for the most part. His relationship with his wife Judith is on the rocks; in fact, she’s begun seeing their widower neighbour, and is contemplating divorce. Not helping Larry’s state of mind are two bickering, adolescent kids, a cohabiting elder brother who spends his days doing obscure math and draining cystic discharge, and anonymous, defamatory letters being sent to the tenureship commitee to upset Larry’s chances of getting the nod.
The Coens have probably filmed the movie, as is their wont, in a Twin Cities (Minnesota) suburb. The film is steeped in Jewish rituals and folklore. Larry’s son, Daniel, is about to undergo his bar mitzwah, and spends most of his time reciting the Torah. The Gopniks are picturised as being part of a stereotypical, closeknit Jewish community; the doctors are Jewish, the lawyers are Jewish, even the buses at Daniel’s Hebrew school have Jewish characters inscribed on them. The Coens treat the hallowed Jewish traditions with requisite respect but don’t hesitate to make fun of the inherent arrogance and self-righteousness prevalent in the ‘Children of God’ doctrine. There is a condescension apparent in the way the Jewish characters treat their gentile neighbours, a snide superiority complex in the way one Jewess claims that they have the benefit of thousands of years of history and collective experience on their side.
All isn’t Jew-baiting, however. The Coens also present the more latently bigoted side to 1960’s America. The Gopniks’ neighbour is a good ol’ deer-hunting redneck who’s probably anti-semitic and openly xenophobic towards the South Korean father of one of Larry’s pupils. The 60s was a heady time in the States from a socio-cultural context, and the Coens succeed in capturing some of the essence that must have permeated it. Traces of the sexual revolution are found in the straightforward, and almost heartless, manner in which Larry’s wife makes her case for a separation. Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Don’t You Want Somebody To Love‘ is the score to the movie, bringing along with it the haze of pot that infused the era; in fact, a venerable rabbi’s choice words of wisdom to Daniel after he receives his bar mitzwah are: “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies”, quoted straight from the famous song.
The movie is being paraded as a black comedy. While it certainly is comic, and has its fair share of Coen-patented twists n’ turns, at its heart lies a meditation on the condition of life, and questions about whether we have any say in it. Larry muses philosophical as everything around him starts unraveling, being at a complete loss to explain why he, a good, dutiful man, has been chosen for God’s ire. Why do things happen the way they do? Is there a greater order preordained from above, or is everything just grand, swirling chaos taking us along for the ride? Larry, as a man of reason, wants to know the ‘whys’, but as a senior rabbi tells him, it’s often the ‘hows’ that give life its true flavour.
The acting is uniformly good. Michael Stuhlbarg brings great nuance to a character that is eternally confused, meek, and generally unexpectant of liberal fortune. He has no misgivings to be occupying his obscure station in life, his only wish is for order and sense to prevail. While Larry’s predicaments make it impossible to not laugh at him, there is also a certain melancholy associated with witnessing the the way fate wreaks havoc with what is, essentially, a good, humble man.
A Serious Man is a wonderfully-crafted movie, staying staunchly within the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre while managing to be more personal, intricate, and thought-provoking than virtually anything else in their catalogue. Absolutely one of the best movies from 2009, and a delight to behold.