Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Serious Man

Aren’t the serious questions such a drag sometimes? I’m talking of those lofty concerns that have spurred on great minds and dullards alike to pontification throughout the ages. Does god exist? Why do we suffer? And finally—exude a soul-weary sigh here, if you like—just what’s the point of it all?

Yes, just what is the point of it all? That’s a question that could easily be asked of A Serious Man, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen. As they often have in the past, the brothers tempt seriousness while simultaneously belittling that same sobriety. This is a caricaturist’s version of existential agony, a cartoon rendition of the calamities visited upon a hapless humanity. Viewers might suspect the Coens are hiding some sort of profound truth somewhere beneath the elegantly designed chaos of this film, but I remain skeptical—strip away the mask, and all you will find is a bemused smirk.

Diverging from their usual meat-grinder approach (toss a bag of money in and watch a gaggle of dimwits leap headlong into the blades trying to catch it), the Coen brothers look to an anonymous Minnesota suburb in the late 1960s for this tale of Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor whose life has suddenly collapsed into a series of increasingly cruel and ridiculous indignities. He discovers that Judith, his wife, wishes to get a divorce and marry Sy Ableman, a bald, liver-spotted man at least twenty years older who comforts the distraught and confused Larry, thwarting the cuckolded husband’s urges to rage and self-pity. Larry obligingly moves into a motel, taking with him his deadbeat brother, who is constantly draining the cyst on his neck while working on an incomprehensible mathematical opus called “The Mentaculus.”

Marital crisis is but one aspect of the shit-storm tornado that upends every aspect of Larry’s routine existence. A Korean student attempts to bribe Larry into giving him a passing grade; when the student is rebuffed, the boy’s father threatens to sue for defamation in retaliation for Larry’s accusations of bribery. As things get worse and worse, Larry frets over money and whether or not the university will grant him tenure—anxieties not helped by the fact that the tenure committee is receiving unsigned letters accusing Larry of “moral turpitude.” And this doesn’t even touch on Larry’s intimidating redneck neighbour, or the angst-ridden spawn of the Gopnik clan, which includes pot-smoking Danny preparing for his bar mitzvah and bratty Sarah stealing money from dad to pay for a nose job.

Many more incidental or minor humiliations beset Larry as he wanders through the film stunned and harried by his transformation into the punch line of some cosmic joke. Even when he goes to three different rabbis seeking solace and wisdom, he receives little comfort. The youngest (the “junior rabbi”) merely rhapsodizes about how the hand of god is apparent even in a parking lot, while a middle-aged rabbi recites a stock story he apparently tells everyone and then offers a few platitudes about being good and helpful. The oldest declines to speak to Larry, but after Danny’s bar mitzvah, he offers the boy a few words of appreciation for Jefferson Airplane and that’s it—apparently, the only wisdom that age brings is brevity.

Of course, in the world of the Coen brothers, brevity is a mighty high source of wisdom indeed. Their characters often pollute the air with all sorts of incessant, nonsensical chatter, and that is especially true in this film, which is filled with blissfully absurd, frequently hilarious exchanges in which people talk in circles around an empty centre. More than any of their previous films, the Coens have created a kind of music out of this noise. Phrases and words repeat—Santana Abraxas, “Out in a minute!”, “I didn’t do anything!”, Dick Dutton—until they become meaningless, just more of the empty noise of Larry’s world. The best way to come out of a Coen brothers film looking smart is to keep your mouth shut.

Still, just as the Coens seem to be laughing at Larry’s crisis and dismissing his quest for higher answers, so too might viewers look at this film and shrug it off as pointless and snide—just another typical shooting gallery from the Coens, they might say, just another film about stupid people doing stupid things, albeit with less bloodshed than usual. So what?

The film boils down to this: life is cruel and unfair and will just screw you over in the end, so just try to be good, okay? And then, keep boiling, let the pot start to smoke and you will find this: life is cruel and unfair and will just screw you over in the end, so why bother doing good, right? And then, fuck the pot, leave it on the stove until it’s just a black metal lump, and you’ll realize this: I just wrecked a perfectly good pot, and I haven’t learned a damn thing. That's what you get for taking a lesson in life philosophy from two terminal wise-asses. Granted, there's a kind of wisdom here, but if you take it too seriously you may find yourself the only one not laughing—and isn't that really the definition of a serious man?

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