“[The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle] proves that we can’t ever know what’s going on….But even if you can’t figure anything out, you’re still responsible for this on the midterm.”
So Larry Gopnik, the physics professor at the heart of A Serious Man, tells his class about midway through the new film from the Coen brothers, basically summing up the entire movie.
Most of the Coen brothers’ films follow an Everyman caught up in morally questionable dealings, but A Serious Man deals with moral uncertainty more directly than films such as Fargo or even No Country For Old Men. Part of this comes from the fact that Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) may be the Coen brothers’ most innocent protagonist—unlike Jerry Lundegaard, Llewelyn Moss, or even the Dude, Gopnick doesn’t do anything (as he repeatedly insists throughout the movie) to bring on an onslaught of crises. Life merely seems to happen to him, and he spends most of the film trying to figure out why.
If this seems reminiscent of the Book of Job, that’s because it is. A Serious Man is a loose retelling of the Biblical story set in suburban Minneapolis during the late ‘60s. Stuhlbarg spends much of his time playing Gopnik keeled over, with his head between his knees as he looks for counsel from generally unhelpful sources. Gopnik tries to get advice from the elderly Rabbi Marshak, who is more like an absent Godot than a God: He doesn’t do pastoral work anymore, he just congratulates the Bar Mitzvah boys. Instead, Gopnik has to settle for the junior rabbi, Rabbi Scott, who looks fresh out of rabbinical school, and Rabbi Nachtner, who tells him “the story of the goy’s teeth.”
The story of the goy’s teeth—about a dentist who finds a cryptic Biblical message on the back of a Gentile’s teeth—is meant to be advisory, but ends up coming across as completely impenetrable. This, of course, is the point. A Serious Man presents life in general as totally indecipherable. And yet, Gopnik, like his students, is going to be responsible for this.
In the beginning of the movie, one of Gopnik’s students, a South Korean* who claims that his failing grade is “unjust,” leaves an envelope of cash in Gopnik’s office. When he confronts the student to tell him that actions have consequences—“and not just in physics. Moral consequences.”—the student denies leaving anything behind and points out that Gopnik can only surmise and interpret what happened: “Much uncertainty.” Throughout the movie, the points of both men continue to resurface: There are always consequence, moral consequences, for our actions—it seems like anytime Gopnik indulges in anger or self-pity, something terrible happens—and yet we can still only surmise and interpret what is happening. There is much uncertainty as to which consequences correspond to which actions, particularly when we can’t get any concrete answers from our rabbis.
*One of the untalked about scandals in recent cinema has been the Coen brothers’ perpetuation of negative Asian stereotypes: In The Big Lebowski, a “chinaman” peed on the Dude’s rug, Fargo’s most pathetic character was Mike Yanagita, and now A Serious Man portrays South Koreans as corrupt bullies.
This film could be viewed as the Coen brothers attempt to depict the particular Jewish neuroses (and the movie has even received bizarre charges of anti-Semitism) first made famous by Philip Roth and Woody Allen. And some of A Serious Man does feel like a Jewish Fargo with its close look at Midwestern culture, attention to the vernacular, and quiet scenes of patient civility. But it’s not really a story of Jewish alienation. Gopnik is just as much alienated from his fellow Jews–his rabbis, his wife, his seductive neighbor–as he is as a Jew. The Jewish community in which he lives doesn’t provide him with any satisfactory answers: Rabbi Marshak won’t even see him.
And while the image of a man totally alienated from his community may seem depressing, it is perfect territory for the Coen brothers’ particular sense of wry, dark humor. Every mundane, prosaic tribulation that befalls Gopnik results in the kind of familiar, sardonic laughter that is both unsettlingly familiar and oddly comforting: When the Columbia Record Club calls to tell him that they haven’t received four months of payments, he protests:
“I didn’t do anything. I didn’t order any records!”
“Sir, not doing anything automatically signs you up to receive one record a month.”
What makes A Serious Man so good, though, is how personal the Coen brothers make it, and how well they show exactly what is at stake. Despite all the comedy they get from his situation, the filmmakers are careful never to cruelly depict Gopnik as a satiric pawn, and a sense of empathy with him is clear. He is, after all, trying to be a serious man.
The primary crisis that Larry Gopnik faces is the threat of losing his family. His wife wants a divorce, telling her husband that it’s due to all the “problems they’ve been having”; Gopnik himself seems unaware of the problems his wife mentions, but tells Rabbi Scott that “she’s usually right about these things.” Worse than mere divorce, though, his wife wants a get, or a traditional Jewish divorce, at the behest of her new lover: the gentle, benevolent and altogether insufferable Sy Ableman. Unlike Gopnik, who doesn’t seem to know what’s best in his own life, Ableman knows “the appropriate course of action” for just about everyone. (He also uses the word “eminently” in consecutive sentences, which is ridiculous.) Meanwhile, Gopnik is also responsible for his brother, a socially maladjusted gambler who’s great with numbers (Richard Kind) and in trouble with the law.
The fact that the stakes are so high for Gopnik lends the movie a poignancy that equals or exceeds its comedy. When Ableman is on screen, for example, his air of smug self-satisfaction is so laughably grating that it makes you want Gopnik to punch him in the face; at the same time, you can see that Gopnik is eager to listen to Ableman’s idea of the right thing, since he’s hoping somebody knows what that is. Stuhlbarg, for his part, plays this sense of barely concealed inner turmoil to a perfect pitch.
So while the Coen brothers may have a black sense of humor, it comes from a particularly real and human place. A Serious Man is a serious look at how any individual ever really knows anything. And while the movie often deftly turns the inadequacy of any viable answers into a punchline, it is not mocking the effort to understand. We will, after all, be responsible for this on the midterm.