Life, love and faith get put through the wringer in the Coen brothers' slapstick meditation.
Their latest, "A Serious Man," is a slapstick meditation on divine intent, human yearning and the consolation of faith in an unfair, unpredictable universe. The central character is a suburban Job asking the ultimate question, "Why me?" The Coens record his woes with sublime assurance, guerrilla wit and a lot of Yiddish.
The film is set in a heavily Jewish suburb of Minneapolis circa 1967, but it opens with a "once upon a time" vignette in the old country. A farmer and his wife receive a late-night guest. The jolly husband announces him as a rabbi from a neighboring village. His sullen wife declares the visitor an evil spirit. Their debate of belief and denial comes to a sharp, violent conclusion. The prologue proves nothing except that truth is elusive.
Larry Gopnik (deliciously underplayed by Michael Stuhlbarg) is a schlumpy junior physics professor who uses math and logic to explain deep mysteries. When we meet him he's trying to explain a profound paradox of quantum mechanics, Schrödinger's Cat, a hypothesis that requires a kitty to be both dead and alive at the same time, like the shtetl rabbi. It's the basis of the uncertainty principle, that some things in the cosmos you can't know.
Larry needs answers in a hurry, however. His life is chaos theory incarnate. He has tried to live an honorable life, but the universe doesn't deal in cause-and-effect rewards and punishments. Larry's strident wife is openly dating sanctimonious creep Sy Ableman, who wraps him in faux-compassionate embraces. Larry's unemployed brother has taken up permanent residence on their living room couch. The Columbia Record Club is hounding him for payments on albums he hasn't ordered. Larry's distressed that a student is bribing him for a passing grade, that his beautiful neighbor sunbathes nude, and that he has to climb up on the roof to see her.
Larry's innocent refrain is "I haven't done anything," which may be his problem. He's buffeted by fate at every turn, kvetching instead of standing up for himself. Then again, what difference would it make? On a few occasions when Larry yields to anger, lust and greed, consequences that look like God's retribution swiftly follow. But he takes his lumps when he's virtuous, too. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
"A Serious Man" is a brilliant balance of presentation and substance. It is technically flawless, from its precisely calibrated sound effects to editing that cuts each scene like a samurai sword. The cast is a treasure trove. Stuhlbarg is an uptight delight, Sari Lennick is a fearsome shrew as his wife, and Aaron Wolff is deliriously funny as their son, stoned to the gills at his bar mitzvah.
The beauty of the film is how many interpretive debates it will launch. Larry climbs atop his house to fiddle with the balky TV antenna: Is this a "Fiddler on the Roof" reference? Are the Eastern European couple of the prologue figures in an allegorical folktale or Gopnik ancestors who brought a curse on their clan for generations?
Maybe it's best not to overthink it. A motto from the 11th-century French rabbi Rashi opens the film over images of gently falling snow: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens with you." The film ends with a severe weather situation that recalls the words of another Jewish sage: "The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind."
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