Why so serious, man?

How does a serious man live with purpose when life often feels like an unfunny prank? And why do bad things happen to good people? Those are but two of the many bedevilling questions that drive A Serious Man, the Joel and Ethan Coen black comedy that belatedly reaches SA cinema screens next week.

The Oscar-nominated 2009 film focuses on the trials endured by a latter day Job by the name of Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor living through a plague of personal and professional woes in Minnesota, 1967. Gopnik’s wife is leaving him for an unctuous creep that he used to call his friend. And he is terrified of a deer-hunting, gun-toting neighbour who may be an anti-Semite.

His tenure at the university where he teaches is under threat by anonymous letters accusing him of improper behaviour. A deadbeat brother, in trouble with the law for sodomy, is sleeping on his couch. And the children — a marijuana-smoking, Jefferson Airplane-obsessed son on the cusp of his bar mitzvah and a daughter saving up for a nose job — are strangers to him.

Gopnik may the victim of a curse brought down on his family hundreds of years back when a hapless ancestor in Ukraine invited a dybbuk (a malevolent lost spirit in Jewish folklore) into his home in the film’s opening scene. Then again, that scene could be apocryphal. He could just be another piece of flotsam battered by the currents and eddies of a fickle universe.

It’s even left open to question whether the sinister figure in the first few minutes of A Serious Man is a dybbuk — the credits list the character as “dybbuk?”. Gopnik is reaching for answers even as he teaches his students, via the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, that there are some things we can never know. Questions. Again with the questions. Always with the questions.

As one expects from any Coen brothers film, A Serious Man is tightly scripted, directed and acted. It’s also an unabashedly anti-commercial film by a creative team that have enough Oscars and critical acclaim behind their names to do whatever the hell they want to.

A Serious Man — behind-the-scenes featurette:

Big Hollywood names clamour to get parts in Coen brothers movies, but A Serious Man is seriously light on star power. That works to its advantage — showboating performances by the likes of George Clooney or Brad Pitt would’ve robbed the film of much of its quiet impact.

Instead, the film is filled with solid character actors that you’ll recognise from a number of television shows and movies, but may struggle immediately to place. Each of them takes to their roles as though they were born for them — especially Fred Melamed as the oily, wife-stealing Sy Abelman and Richard Kind as the unfortunate Uncle Arthur.

But the film belongs to television and stage actor, Michael Stuhlbarg, as Larry Gopnik. His understated performance turns Gopnik into a sympathetic and relatable everyman — one of the few truly likable characters in A Serious Man. Gopnik, as played by Stuhlbarg, is a genuinely nice guy who doesn’t understand or deserve all the misfortune that the world is throwing at him.

A Serious Man is intensely personal in scope — it draws heavily on the Coens’ upbringing in a household of Jewish academics in 1960s mid-Western America. It’s the least accessible film yet from a pair of filmmakers who have never really aimed for mainstream success.

A Serious Man is not epic like No Country for Old Men, or endlessly quotable and amusing like The Big Lebowski. If you’re not familiar with Jewish culture, you may need to look up many of the film’s cultural references and Yiddish phrases, as I did.

But even so, its themes are universal and its script has depth and resonance. A Serious Man is about nothing less than the frantic search for meaning in a world where God is absent and old traditions are dying. If that makes it sound like a serious film, it’s not really. Like so many other American Jewish artists –Woody Allen and Philip Roth come to mind — the Coen brothers laugh in the face of futility.

The more Gopnik struggles on his hook, the funnier and more painful it becomes to watch his writhing. “I have tried to be a serious man,” he pleads in one part of the movie. Perhaps Gopnik should heed the advice of the Rashi proverb quoted at the opening of the film: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” Or, follow the example of the Dude in the Big Lebowski and simply abide.

Those who felt let down by the quiet but devastating conclusion of No Country for Old Men will be as frustrated by the closing minutes of A Serious Man. But it’s only fitting that this hollow joke should end without a punch line. God offers no answers, so why should the Coen brothers?  — Lance Harris, TechCentral

  • A Serious Man opens in SA on 14 May

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  • Ann

    Brilliant review – like the saying goes: Cheer up, things could get worse. So he cheered up and things got worse.

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