The Coen brothers are known for putting their leading men through hell. Predominantly pathetic anti-heroes, whether Barton Fink or The Dude, their success or failure isn’t what interests us nearly as much as the process by which they suffer. Joel and Ethan Coen have mastered the art of the failing anti-hero, while redefining the term. That their audience loves them for their nihilistic humour and defeatist plots is a true testament to their abilities as filmmakers. You go to the cinema, traditionally, to see the good guy come out on top. But what if the lead isn’t quite good? What if he’s just a sniveling, spineless worm of a man? And what if his journey brought him right back around to the start? Such is the case with A Serious Man, the second last film in TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Coen brothers retrospective, Tall Tales.
Larry Gopnik (Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Stuhlbarg) is a good man. He’s a serious man. At least he’s trying to be. It’s 1967 suburbia. A Midwestern physics professor on the cusp of being tenured, Larry is about to hit a rather colossal bout of bad luck. After being subtly blackmailed by a failing student who seems to think math isn’t a fundamental component of physics, he comes home to his wife, bickering children, and freeloading brother. His wife wants a divorce, his son is complaining about the television signal, his daughter is screaming to wash her hair, and his brother is draining his never-ending cyst. His racist neighbour is stepping over his property line and carting dead deer carcases across the driveway, while his blackmailing student’s father berates him about passing his son. His wife’s lover is attempting to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” while he subtly kicks Larry out of his own home, and steals his wife. What’s worse, someone is anonymously slandering his name to the tenure review board, muddling up his chances of security.
In an attempt to find peace of mind, Larry goes to see not one, not two, but three rabbis. Each gives him a variation on the same answer, telling him befuddling stories about dentistry and the word of God all the while. “We can’t know everything,” says Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner) in an attempt to ease Larry’s worried mind. It doesn’t help.
Things go from bad to cataclysmic for Larry, as he swiftly gets pushed to the brink constantly wondering “why?!” And he never gets an answer. The ambiguity of the message is the trademark of the Coen brothers, here manifested in a relentless onslaught of hardship and calamity.
With striking similarities to The Book of Job, it seems Larry is being tested. But to what end? Is the film meant to showcase the textbook Rabbinical answer Larry’s been repeatedly given? Is it truly as simple as never being able to know everything? It would seem that the message, in that case, is simply live and let live. Don’t obsess over the trials and tribulations of life, but find comfort in the knowledge that this, too, shall pass, and things will be as they are meant to be. But that would be far too Zen for the Coens. And if there is one thing Jewish behaviour is not, it’s Zen.
The film was inspired by a Rabbi the Coen’s knew growing up. He would sit down with the young boys after they’d had their Bar Mitzvah, and tell them a few words of wisdom. He was a frightening figure to the boys. A man of shadow and mystery, he offered only a few words to those lucky enough to sit with him. The inspiration for the third Rabbi, Rabbi Marshak, he is the keeper of the faith and its answers. Yet he offers none.
Ultimately, A Serious Man looks more like a giant cosmic joke. Jews have been persecuted for centuries, and are among some of the most persecuted people in history. While Larry’s trials are of a relatively superficial nature, he’s still being forced through the ringer. What if the point is to point out the joke of it all? What if we Jews aren’t God’s “chosen” people in that he loves us, but that he loathes us? All that we’ve been through, and all that we’ll go through, is because we’re the ants on God’s anthill, and he’s holding the magnifying glass? Maybe it’s simply a metaphor for our inability to be truly happy with anything because we’re simply too neurotic? Ultimately, like with the Three Rabbi’s, the questions are there, and they’re good questions. But the answers are up to us to interpret.
A Serious Man plays at TIFF Bell Lightbox tonight, December 17th, at 8:45pm, and tickets are still available. Come and enjoy the unfortunately neglected film, the second-last in their Tall Tales retrospective. True Grit will culminate the series on Thursday, December 20th at 9:00pm, and the highly anticipated Inside Llewyn Davis will premiere on Christmas day.