Oscar 2009: Serious Man by Joel and Ethan Coen

With their new film, "A serious Man," a sharply observed serio-comedic Jewish fable, Joel and Ethan Coen again prove that they are nothing if not original and unpredictable. 

Having won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for "No Country for Old Men," their most accomplished work to date, the siblings then followed with "Burn After Reading," an underestimated comedy that holds up well, in fact, it gets better on a second viewing.
 
And now comes their most personal and intimate work, "A Serious Man," a period piece that sees Joel and Ethan in top form as storytellers, with the kind of darkly humorous and poignant narrative that's deeply grounded in their own biography. Going back to their roots, "Serious Man" may be the Coens' most overtly and explicitly Jewish film, not least due to the use of Yiddish, Hebrew, and specific Jewish mores and humor. 
 
It remains to be seen to what extent these factors that that might curtail the potential commercial appeal of the film. The movie, which world-premiered at the Toronto Film Festival (in the Special Presentations section), will be released by Focus Features October 2, 2009. What's beyond doubt, however, is "Serious Man" is not only one of the Coens' deepest and most poignant films, but also, as of today, one of the best pictures of the year.
 
Jewish viewers (including this writer) will benefit and get more from the tall folk tale, which makes assumptions of some knowledge of the Jewish tradition, folklore and proverbs, beginning with a quote from the venerable figure of Rashi, "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you," which serves as the motto for the ensuing tale; indeed, the movie could have easily been titled "A Simple Man."

Set in 1967 in a Jewish community, in an unnamed Midwestern suburb, "Serious Man" centers on one Jewish family, composed of Larry and Judith Gopnick (
Michael Stuhlbarg and Sari Lennick) and their two children, Danny (Aaron Wolff) and his sister Sarah (Jessica McManus). The boy, Danny, about to be Bar-Mitzvahed in a sacred ritual, after which he's expected to become a real, mature (and serious) man, may be a composite character of Joel and/or Ethan (born 1955 and 1958, respectively).
 
Reportedly, the genesis of the project dates years back, when the Coens considered making a short film about a bar-mitzvah boy who goes to see an ancient rabbi, with the rabbi character loosely based on an actual rabbi they knew when we they were growing up. Protagonist Gopnik is a composite character, based on people who were familiar to them growing up because he's an academic; the Coens' both parents were academic.
 
Indeed, "Serious Man" reflects how the Coens view the world and the human condition, that is, bad things and good things happen to the best people, and a lot of these things defy rational or any explanation. In the course of the film, Gopnick wants to know what he's done wrong, needing to see that he's done something morally wrong so that he can straighten things out and not have these horrible things happen to him anymore. In fact, Gopnick hasn't really done much wrong at all; he's just gone through what's called life.
Though most of the tale is set in the suburban Midwest of 1967, "Serious Man" begins with a prologue set a century earlier, in a Polish shtetl (small Jewish village, not unlike the one in "Fiddler on the Roof"), where an unsettling folk tale plays out completely in Yiddish. Strange and hard to understand at first, this self-contained Yiddish folk tale proves to be an appropriate introduction to the main narrative.
 
In the first scene, Danny is seen in school, taking a boring Hebrew class, and surrounded by pubescent kids who are just as bored as he is. A resourceful boy, Danny gets high and listens to Jefferson Airplane when he's supposed to be preparing for his bar-mitzvah.
 
In broad, comic brushes, the members of the Gopnick family, each with his or her own sets of distinctive characteristics, problems, and personal agenda. For example, son Danny wants to get pot and LP records, where sister Sarah, wants to get a nose job. As for the presumably loyal wife-mother, Judith, out of the blue, she tells Gopnick she wants a divorce (a ritualized one, at that) so that she can marry man, Sy Ableman, whom she sees as "a serious man," unlike her husband (who would become a serious man at the end of the saga—almost despite himself).
Also residing in the house and irritating everybody, because he's always in the bathroom, is Gopnick's brother Arthur (Richard Kind), who's sleeping on the sofa and has no intention of leaving, until Judith kicks her husband to shabby neighboring motel.
 
As the head of the family, Gopnick just wants to keep the status quo—keep things as they are, though he is far from being happy. However, harsh reality flies in his face, forcing him to deal with endless sets of problems, personal, familial, professional, communal, and societal.
 
At the beginning of the story, he's happy with the way things are, with the status quo. But misfortunes befall him, and he can't believe that the apple cart is being upset. But like other men of his position, he takes a lot of what's around him for granted, and it's the task of the narrative to serve as a wake-up call, to raise his consciousness of self as well as others. He is the type of man who continues doing things until it all starts to slip away, forcing him to (re) discover that life isn't what he expected it to be, which throws him into a crisis of faith and takes him out of his bubble.
At work, coming up for tenure, he gets contradictory signs from the chair of the committee, due to some anonymous letters that question his moral int
egrity. There's another complication. For reasons that cannot be disclosed here, Gopnick is both blackmailed and threatened to be sued by a disenchanted Korean student, who got F in the exam and demands that it be changed to c (or C-). Would Gopnick compromise his academic integrity and ethical principles and succumb, using the much-needed cash left by the Korean student on his desk?
The narrative unfolds as a series of tests and trials, or ways to torture Gopnick to the point where his life gets progressively and unbearably worse. On the surface, the relentless trials he must endure appear to be comic, buoyant, and absurd, but deep down they are serious and existential, because they challenge the very meaning of Jewish life and the nature of God's intention for his chosen people. 
 
It's in the inventively spiraling narrative structure and original devices, which are sort of a reworking of the Biblical Job parable, that the Coens show their ingenuity as scribes in coming up with inventive ways to beleaguer a basically decent adult. Would Gopnick be able to survive the ordeals imposed on him by family, community, and God! 
 
The immediate question is, who to turn for help? At first, Gopnick hopes that, through his community's spiritual leaders' wisdom, he will learn why these things are happening to him (he asks the quintessentially Jewish question of, "why me?"). It's one of the film's recurrent jokes that the smart rabbis are silent sages, who sit quietly, look and observe, but say little or nothing at all.
 
In the course of the narrative, several wrenches get thrown at him. His brother, Arthur (Uncle Arthur), goes through his own crisis, which is another weight on Larry's shoulders, though it's one that he bears reasonably (or relatively) well, because of the deep bond between them.

Two key experiences for Danny form the climax of the text, yet it's Larry's fate (and doubtful existence at present and in the future), which constitutes the center of the story, and after asides and distractions, the Coens have the smart sense of always going back to him, and depict "reality" from his subjective and thus distorted point of view.

 
Following the same casting strategy they had used in "Fargo," the Coens have assembled the thespians to play Larry's wife and children with local actors from Minneapolis, where the movie was shot. However, unlike most of their previous films, "Serious Men" is cast with unknown actors; you won't see any of the regulars of the Coens' movies, except for Michael Lerner in a bit role.
 
New York theater actor Michael Stuhlbarg is perfectly cast, in looks, gestures, and behavior, as Gopnick. Marked by appealing but ordinary looks, he turns in a compelling, utterly believable performance as a middle-aged man who goes about his life in a normal way, based on a familiar set of routines. Quite content to continue his life the way it's going, he enjoys his mathematics and his physics work at a local college, and loves his family dearly. 
 
No doubt, the ambiguous, open-ended closure of the tale will frustrate some critics and viewers, while please others (like me).  Some will see the ending as an example of the Coen's signature cynicism, their refusal to commit to a view of Gopnick's fate, but to me it is astute, poignant, and even thought-provoking coda. (I also did like the abrupt ending of their previous film, "No Country for Old Men," which upset some critics).
 
Spoiler Alert
 
The tale begins with a thorough X-Ray examination of Gopnick by his doctor, and at the end, sitting at his school desk, Gopnick gets an urgent call from the doctor to come and see him right away.