Leading up to the release of Hail, Caesar!, Vague Visages explores the work of Joel and Ethan Coen.
The Coen Brothers express a grim sort of glee by dragging their characters through the mud. We’re laughing both at their characters’ suffering and out of sympathy for them, and it’s become a mark of the directors’ auteur status, their simultaneous hatred and love of their protagonists. Yet not even films like Barton Fink and Inside Llewyn Davis feature as much suffering like the Coens’ unsung 2009 masterpiece, A Serious Man. Often jokingly described as an adaptation of The Book of Job, A Serious Man is the most “Coen Brothers” of Coen Brothers films, at least in regard to putting their characters through as much sorrow as they possibly can.
“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” This quote opens the film, internalized by Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), an unassuming Jewish physics professor, husband and father who sees his life begin to fall apart for no apparent reason. Larry’s wife announces that she wants to divorce him for a well-respected acquaintance, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), and with his son’s bar mitzvah just around the corner, his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is either sleeping on the couch or draining his cyst in the bathroom all day. Larry is up for tenure, but somebody keeps sending degrading letters to the committee… a South Korean student, Clive Park, is trying to blackmail him into giving him a passing grade.
Larry takes all of the news the best that he can, but he struggles to understand what’s been done to deserve it. In order to understand his predicament, he turns to faith but finds himself just as lost. Each of Larry’s visits to the different rabbis seem less fruitful than the previous, each of them providing analogies and stories that don’t give him any answers to his problems. A Serious Man marked a career-turning role for Stuhlbarg, one he pulls off with affectionate bewilderment and frustration, like an adult Charlie Brown. He plays Larry equally comedic and tragic, in line with the Coen Brothers’ attitude.
In one scene, Larry confronts Clive about the bribery money and tells him that actions have consequences. Actions do have consequences, but they aren’t always deserved in the world of the Coen Brothers. Larry is trying to keep a level head and do the right thing by everyone and himself, but these actions hold no sway in the events that push and pull. At one point, he and Sy get into a car accident at the same time, and Sy dies. Because good things can’t just ever simply happen to Larry, of course, he still finds a way to be held responsible for it as he gets saddled with the funeral costs.
A Serious Man is both hilarious and painful to watch, as you can’t help but feel the crushing anxiety of Larry on yourself as well. Towards the end, it seems like the storm is passing and the Coens are easing up on Larry. His son’s bar mitzvah goes well, and it seems like he might be moving back into his house with his family. Then Job breaks. Larry takes the bribe to pay off a lawyer’s retainer and changes Clive’s grade. His phone immediately rings, the doctor wanting to speak to him in person about an X-ray. Meanwhile, a tornado approaches his son’s school. The question lingers on in the credits: did Larry cause this, or was this always going to happen?
In one of the most beguiling endings in recent history, A Serious Man concludes on a large note of uncertainty as the Coens cut to black from what feels like an unfinished shot. Trying to interpret the ending is pointless, much in the same way that Larry’s interpretations of God and suffering are pointless. There’s just no way of knowing how God (or the Coen Brothers) work.
Dylan Moses Griffin has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.