A Serious Man
Produced by Studio Canal and Working Title Films
Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
Distributed by Focus Features
Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is hardly cinematic, yet Ethan and Joel Coen have made it a linchpin in the plots of two of their films, The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) and their latest work, A Serious Man. In the first, Tony Shalhoub, playing a ferociously imperious lawyer of abysmal ethics, plans to use it to defend his lovely client against murder charges. He will demonstrate that all the evidence against her doesn’t matter. “You see,” he says in mystical tones, “sometimes the more you look, the less you really know. . . . There’s this heini in Germany, who wrote it out in numbers.” Once the jury grasps this dazzling feat of epistemological jujitsu, they will speedily decide the prosecution’s case is utterly without merit. In A Serious Man, Heisenberg returns to upset more certain certainties. If nothing else, the Coen brothers seem to want to educate moviegoers on the mysteries of quantum physics. Heisenberg’s Principle is famous—or infamous—for demonstrating that, at the quantum level of reality, “we can never know what’s going on with certainty,” as Prof. Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), the protagonist of A Serious Man, triumphantly informs his college physics class. To prove his point, he’s filled three huge blackboards with the requisite equation—a daunting exercise in higher futility, some would say.
A Serious Man concerns the problem of inescapable indeterminacy in a world that unfairly demands we act as if we know what’s going on. In its own perverse way, the film satirically echoes Greek tragedy: Oedipus may be wholly ignorant of his fatal origins, but he’s nevertheless held responsible for them. To introduce this conundrum, the film begins with a vignette set in a 19th-century Polish shtetl. A venerable old man visits a couple’s home on a winter’s night, only to receive a welcome frostier than the subzero weather outside. The lady of the house surmises that he’s a dybbuk, an evil spirit of Jewish lore. This dybbuk, she’s convinced, has taken over the body of her dead relation. The old man finds the charge delightfully preposterous, but the woman holds her ground. What happens next establishes the theme of uncertainty at the heart of the Coens’ odd mixture of black comedy, metaphysical dread, and their patented misanthropy.
No sooner is the Polish preface over than we cut to the film’s title credits. In the middle of the screen is a luminous circle toward which the camera slowly moves. Finally, the camera passes into the circle, while the soundtrack faintly murmurs with a seemingly familiar melody. As the camera continues moving forward, we realize it’s passing through a dark, red tunnel. Once it reaches the tunnel’s end, it comes out into the light through the portal of a boy’s ear. With a start, we realize we’ve been inside the boy’s head. He is Larry’s 13-year-old son Dan (Aaron Wolff). Dan has been sitting at his desk in Hebrew school, where he’s been studiously ignoring his lesson in order to listen to a popular song piped through an earpiece plugged into his transistor. We can now hear its fully amplified guitar chords driving the familiar lyrics: “When the truth is found to be lies / and all the joy within you dies / don’t you want somebody to love / don’t you need somebody to love.”
The 1967 Jefferson Airplane anthem is calling for a desperate, headlong pursuit of indiscriminate sex as the only worthwhile endeavor in a demonstrably senseless world. Not exactly the ideal encouragement for a boy on the eve of his bar mitzvah. Meanwhile, a few miles away, Larry is undergoing a physical exam, and his doctor has just finished probing his ear. Father and son are visually linked on the very day that they will begin to find that their truths may all be lies and that the joy within them may likely die. A back-and-forth montage between father and son establishes that there’s a profound difference between what’s going on inside their heads and what’s actually happening in the world around them.
This disconnect between subjective assumption and objective reality shouldn’t come as a surprise to Larry. As a physics professor, he is well acquainted with the discrepancy between the phenomenal world our senses report to us and the world of matter and energy mathematics reveals underneath it. But Larry, it seems, has managed to compartmentalize his thinking so that he doesn’t see the connection between his professed subject and his personal life. He can cheerfully explain to his bored students that quantum physics proves we can never really tell what’s going on, but he hasn’t applied this insight to his experience of the world beyond the classroom. He hasn’t considered how the cultural presuppositions of his Jewish-American upbringing may have prevented him from accurately perceiving the most elementary facts of his daily existence. So when his wife informs him one evening that she wants him to give her a get (a Jewish ritual divorce), it strikes him, in his own words, as a “bolt from the blue.” His wife’s defection couldn’t be more inopportune. His application for tenure is under review, and, since he’s an unpublished professor, he is less than a shoo-in.
Then there’s that envelope stuffed with hundred-dollar bills that Larry found on his desk. He surmises that it was left by Clive Park (David Kang), a failing Korean student who has been demanding not just a passing grade but a B in his course. When Larry confronts Clive with the envelope, he upbraids the lad. “Actions have consequences. . . . Not just [in] physics. . . . And we both know about your actions.”
The young man coolly denies knowing anything about anything, invoking his own Heisenberg principle. “No sir. I know about my actions.”
Larry replies, “I can interpret, Clive. I know what you meant me to understand.”
Unfazed, Clive reasonably points out that this is “mere surmise; very uncertain.” Later, Clive’s father displays similar chutzpah. He threatens to sue Larry on the grounds that he has accused his son of bribery. At the same time, he accuses Larry of taking the bribe and not changing the grade. Shocked by such audacity, Larry counters, “It doesn’t make sense. Either he left the money, or he didn’t.”
The imperturbable Mr. Park flatly replies, “Please. Accept mystery.”
And there’s more. Someone is sending unsigned letters to the tenure committee charging Larry with moral turpitude. The police are stopping by his house to investigate his slovenly live-in brother for his gambling and propositioning propensities. Meanwhile, Larry’s wife’s has demanded he move out so she can better conduct her relationship with her fat slob of a lover, the highly successful Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), an unctuous, self-satisfied bully whom the town’s Jewish community considers a genuinely able man—“a serious man,” in fact. Compared with him, the innocent, decent Larry is nothing but a feckless schnook.
Desperate, Larry seeks counsel at his temple, where Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner) talks to him in riddles and fables that Larry judges beside the point. Nacht-ner tells him of a dentist who discovers Hebrew characters reading “help me” on the back of an unsuspecting goy’s teeth. Thoroughly disturbed, the dentist wonders if this is Hashem calling on him to help this fellow. If so, in what way? Should he even tell the goy about this seeming revelation? He goes to Nachtner for counsel. Since there is no natural explanation for the markings, Nachtner advises him to forget about them. “We can’t know everything,” he observes complacently. Meanwhile, “helping others couldn’t hurt.”
Larry is not appeased. How does this story apply to him? Nachtner responds, “We all want the answer, but Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.” His sense of the fitness of things offended, Larry asks about the goy. “The goy?” Nachtner muses. “Who cares?” (I can’t think of another movie in which Jews refer to gentiles as goys. And here the term is used dismissively, if not contemptuously, and not only by Nachtner. Leave it to the Coens to rend the veil on this one. Dream as we will, few of us have transcended the tribal us-and-them mentality.)
Larry, as you’ve no doubt gathered, is a Job figure. Though innocent, he’s put upon horribly and wants to know why. The Coens seem to have told his story because it’s in part their own. Larry resembles their father, who taught economics at the University of Minnesota and reared them in a Minneapolis suburb similar to one we see in their film. Why they wanted to ridicule their antecedents, I’m not sure. Maybe they’re mocking themselves also with Larry’s son, a young pothead who is about the same age Joel was in 1967. The brothers have always had fun with people who expect the world to make sense. This seems to be an aspect of their metaphysical anger. Why are we made to expect purpose and justice in a world evidently devoid of both?
Their 2007 Oscar winner, No Country for Old Men, also raised this issue. The brothers had found in No Country’s author, Cormac McCarthy, a kindred atheist—or existentialist, at least. The narrative depicted people bereft of providence and condemned to live in an absurd world in which they are hunted remorselessly by an inexplicable fate. It seemed to me at the time that the brothers might also have signed on with McCarthy to be on the lookout for some sign that maybe their atheism was ill founded. For by the end of his bleak tale, McCarthy has pushed the absurdist notion so hard that he nearly pokes through the apparent nothingness into something like hope. The Coens’ adaptation scrupulously retained this element even at the risk of compromising the film’s dramatic effectiveness. Perhaps, the novel and film seemed to say, we’re not abandoned after all. In A Serious Man, however, the Coens have reverted to their earlier conviction. There is no God. Or if there is, he’s a perverse tyrant who enjoys randomly dishing out unspeakable sufferings and humiliations to all comers. To pretend otherwise is to make a schnook of yourself. Their aesthetic response to our fate in this world is to co-opt the sadistic Hashem. They put themselves in his place so, like the malevolent deity, they, too, can have sport with the unwary. The ending of their film brings this willfully home.
Still, there’s no gainsaying the artistry of the Coens’ filmmaking. Its intensity makes me think they aren’t cemented into their position. They may mock and humiliate their characters with glee, but such perverse storytelling seems to me an expression of their unspoken and perhaps as-yet-unrealized anguish. You can’t be this angry with God and man without caring intensely for both.