A Serious Man

February 3, 2010
Alan A. Stone, MD
Volume 27, Issue 2

A Serious Man-a film that explores their Jewish roots in Minnesota. Not roots in the genealogical or autobiographical sense but from a removed and more philosophical perspective-what does it mean to be a Jew, both as a matter of social identity and as someone who is supposed to believe in God or Hashem, the word religious Jews invoke so as not to take the name of the Lord in vain. Hashem will roll so glibly off the tongues of the Coens’ Jews, it will seem more like affectation than piety.

We see a funnel cloud in the middle distance. A growing rumble. The tornado is approaching. At the first downbeat of its chorus, the Jefferson Airplane song “Somebody to Love” bumps up full. We cut to black and credits. With that juxtaposition of God-sent disaster and 1960s psychedelic rock and roll, The Coen Brothers, the best 2-headed filmmaker in Hollywood, bring to a close A Serious Man-a film that explores their Jewish roots in Minnesota. Not roots in the genealogical or autobiographical sense but from a removed and more philosophical perspective-what does it mean to be a Jew, both as a matter of social identity and as someone who is supposed to believe in God or Hashem, the word religious Jews invoke so as not to take the name of the Lord in vain. Hashem will roll so glibly off the tongues of the Coens’ Jews, it will seem more like affectation than piety.

Psychiatrists who are interested in faith and spirituality as healing parameters for the psyche will find little to admire in A Serious Man. Judging by this film, the Coens are Freudians in the agnostic tradition of The Future of an Illusion.

A Serious Man makes no commercial compromises for conventional audiences. Non-Jews who have no idea what a dybbuk is and have never been to a conservative bar mitzvah will be confused by its ethnocentrism. (Hashem will certainly stump them.) Some Jews, the kind who still cannot forgive Charles Dickens for the Fagin of Oliver Twist, will decide the film is “bad for the Jews” and will be offended by the 2-dimensional caricatures. They will miss all the mordant humor.

The Coens have tried in interviews to dispel the mistaken notion that A Serious Man is either their autobiography or social realism. True, it is set in a middle-class Jewish community in Minnesota during the 60s when they themselves were teenagers (Joel was born in 1954 and Ethan in 1957). True, the Job-like protagonist is a professor, as was their father, but the fictional Professor Gopnik (a masterful performance by Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physicist and their father was an economist. And quite unlike the fictional small-minded hausfrau Mrs Gopnik (Sari Lennick), their own mother was also a professor. And unlike the empty-headed bar mitzvah boy of the film Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff) whose life is made up of pot, “F Troop” on television, and rock and roll, the precocious Coen brothers (who may have shared Danny’s indulgences) flourished intellectually and artistically in their academic home and were already making 8-mm films together in the 60s. Joel later went to New York University film school while Ethan took a detour through Princeton where he majored in philosophy and wrote a thesis on the later works of Wittgenstein.

The brothers are themselves serious men who share that unhappy philosopher’s doubts about all forms of “truth,” leavened of course by their sense of humor. In A Serious Man, they have stepped back from the trajectory of their big budget, famous actor, Hollywood-sized movies. Brilliantly crafted and made with unknown actors who seem to have been born to play these roles, this film is sad and funny at the same time: the defining emotional dialectic of the Jewish sensibility.

Looking back at their earlier films from the vantage point of A Serious Man, one might argue that the “wicked” sense of humor seen in their best films (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Are Thou?) has always been a modern version of the tragic-comic spirit of Jewish gallows humor that runs through Kafka’s bleak stories, although in most of the great man’s work, it goes unrecognized by readers bent on the search for profundity.

The Coens’ hero, Professor Gopnik, is not like Gregor Samsa of Metamorphosis turned into a giant insect, but he is their specimen Jew whom they poke and prod to see how he will react. And like Kafka, this Coen film is fabulous. A Serious Man, in fact, begins with a fable set in one of the shtetls on the Polish-Ukrainian frontier. Filmed in sepia and spoken in Yiddish with subtitles, it is a fable invented by the Coens. An elderly stranger with a long straggly forked white beard is either the husband’s good Samaritan who helped him get the wheel back on his wagon on the lonely Lublin Road late at night, or-as his wife believes-an evil dybbuk inhabiting the body of Reb Groshkover who died of typhus 3 years earlier. So sure is the wife that she suddenly stabs the stranger in the heart with her ice pick. Was she right? The old man laughs hilariously-(here is black humor indeed)-and at first shows no effect; proving it seems that the wife’s action was justified. Then in the sepia colors of the film, a dark stain begins to show around the ice pick. The stranger, evil dybbuk or good Samaritan, staggers out the door, leaving the husband and the audience with their uncertainty about what actually happened.

The sepia fable gives way to a brightly lit Minnesota Hebrew school where the bar mitzvah boy, Danny Gopnik, ignores his boring teacher and listens to Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane on a transmitter radio connected by a cord to a white plastic earpiece. “Somebody to Love” is the Greek chorus of A Serious Man. Scenes of Danny at Hebrew school and his father at his annual medical examination are intercut. Father and son are the protagonists of the film. Larry Gopnik is a singularly unassertive physics professor, he demands and gets no respect; his wife, who wants a divorce so she can marry the repulsive Sy Abelman, walks all over her husband and acts as though she is the injured party. His daughter is the embodiment of vanity; she does nothing but wash her hair and wait for the day she will get her nose fixed. And Danny treats his father like a TV repairman who should be at his beck and call to climb up on the roof and adjust the antenna so that “F Troop” will be less fuzzy. While his family gives him nothing but grief, the professor is up for tenure; a Korean student is trying to bribe or sue him
to raise a failing grade; his non-Jewish, deer-hunting neighbor is annexing part of his house lot; and his strange unemployed brother has moved into his living room.

Despite these adversities, Professor Gopnik remains a decent man of faith. When he seeks counsel from his temple’s 3 rabbis, the first tells him to look differently at the world; the second tells him a shaggy dog story about a goy on whose teeth there is miraculously engraved in Hebrew the words help me. (What does it mean? The rabbi doesn’t know. What happened to the goy? The rabbi doesn’t care.) And the third very old and very wise rabbi refuses to see poor Professor Gopnik.

The striking cinematic contrast between the Yiddish fable and 60s Minnesota leads the audience to wonder . . . were those shtetl Jews the actual forebears of the Gopniks? Is the fable a foreword? Did the killing of the old man/dybbuk put a curse on Gopnik? Will the Minnesota story somehow explain the mysterious fable? Or do the Coens intend us to recognize that both parts of their Serious Man story are fables?

Indeed one reading of the film might suggest that the Coens are demonstrating that everything humans can know, not just about God and the meaning of life but also about physical reality, is a fable. Consider the physics that Professor Gopnik actually teaches. Here he is answering the Korean student who stubbornly claims to have understood the physics of Schrdinger’s dead cat/live cat but flunked his midterm only because he did not understand the math! “You can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math . . . the stories I give you in class are just illustrative, they’re like fables, said to help give you a picture. An imperfect model. I mean-even I don’t understand the dead cat. The math is how it really works.” The dead cat/live cat is Schrdinger’s famous illustration of the superposition of possible outcomes based on the principles of quantum mechanics. Schrdinger’s cat along with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is what the Coens show us of Gopnik’s physics.

I take it then that the lack of certitude is the underlying theme of the Coens’ fables, whether in the shtetl, in Professor Gopnik’s life, or in the formulas that fill his blackboards. And belief in God in the face of that incertitude is the impossible test of faith given to the Jews. There are observant Jews who do not believe in God. What separates them from the Almighty is the Holocaust. How could they be the “chosen people” if God allowed so many of them to be sacrificed in the ovens of the final solution? They cling to their rituals out of Jewish identity and not out of faith. The Coens have implausibly left the Holocaust and Israel out of this dissection of their Jewish roots-perhaps because in the shadows of the Holocaust and the Jewish beleaguered homeland, they found it impossible to mock their Minnesota Jewry.

In any event, the Jews of A Serious Man seem childlike, a congregation that knows nothing of suffering and has never been tested. For them, Judaism is a matter of neither faith or saving ritual. The Coens present the religious experience of their Minnesota Jewry in 2 ceremonies at the local temple-the funeral of Sy Abelman, killed in a car crash, and the bar mitzvah of Danny. Abelman’s transparently hypocritical eulogy (the man was awful) is given by the rabbi of the goy’s teeth. Delivered in a strangely cheerful style, the rabbi goes on at length about what death means for Jews. “We speak of L’olam ha-ba, the world to come. Not heaven. Not what the Gentiles think of as Heaven . . . we are not promised a personal reward . . . a first-class VIP lounge where we get milk and cookies to eternity.” The Coens’ Jews have neither a heaven nor a hell-only a smug sense of superiority over those silly gentiles.

And then there is the bar mitzvah at which Danny is so stoned he has trouble finding and focusing on the part of the Torah he is supposed to chant. To the relief of his family and the entire congregation, he finds his place and begins the time-honored ritual that makes him an adult member of the Tribe of Israel. Danny is having a drug trip, not a religious experience. Jews who have gone through similar rituals will know that Danny (like most American Jews) has no idea what the Hebrew words he is reading mean. He has been taught to chant, not to understand.

The religion pictured here involves neither redemption nor faith in God and if Danny is their exemplar, the Coens feel nothing but alienation. Danny’s actual “religion” is the psychedelic rock of the Jefferson Airplane. In a bizarre irony after his bar mitzvah, Danny is allowed to enter the study of the great but reclusive rabbi for words of wisdom and advice. This is the rabbi who refused to see his father. As Danny enters the room the camera lingers on a Rembrandt painting hanging on the wall: it is Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac.

Danny is understandably wary and still tripping on pot as he sits before the sage. In a totally unexpected moment the rabbi, after a long pause, finally and slowly speaks, “When the truth is found to be lies. And all the hope within you dies”-the first lines of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” Those are his words of wisdom. The Rabbi then reaches in the drawer and pushes across his desk Danny’s radio that had been confiscated by the Hebrew teacher. Now the rabbi’s advice, “be a good boy.”

Every one of the actors in A Serious Man is brilliantly cast and, except for the professor, each of them gives the lie to the maxim that to be a success, an actor has to be likable. Job was vexed by God with horrors such as the death of his children; Gopnik’s ordeal is one of petty humiliations. But then the Coens turn the knife in their Jewish specimen. Just when it seems Hashem is their existential joke, Professor Gopnik commits a sin, he raises the Korean student’s grade and pockets the money (he needs it for legal fees). In a twinkling, the tornado comes roaring down on Danny and his Hebrew school and the professor gets a phone call from the doctor about the chest x-ray taken at his annual physical that must be urgently discussed.

What does it all mean? Gopnik poignantly asked the second rabbi, “Why does Hashem make us aware of the questions if he is not going to give us the answers?” The Coens of course gave their Serious Man that line. Presumably they thought it was sad and funny at the same time. And when the telephone call, the funnel cloud, and “Somebody to Love” ends their Jewish film, we wonder, should we laugh or cry? Humor-not spirituality-is the only consolation the Coens have to offer.