It is reassuring to discover at the end of A Serious Man that "No Jews were harmed during the making of this film". But the same cannot be said of the reputation of its directors, Ethan and Joel Coen. The Minnesota-born siblings, who also write, edit and produce their movies, have taken an apparent turn away from pastiche towards the personal, with a script set among a 1960s Jewish academic community in the Midwest. The similarity to the brothers' own upbringing hasn't stirred in them any newfound warmth. If anything, the intimate register of A Serious Man exposes their limited emotional and stylistic repertoire. It also has the effect of recasting their occasional exuberant triumphs (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski) as flukes.
The film begins in a 19th-century eastern European hovel, where a married couple are arguing over whether or not to kill their elderly house guest, who may be a dybbuk, or bad spirit. None of this relates directly to what follows, but it does announce the particular sensibility that the Coens proceed to satirise: in short, you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. That prologue is so distinct from the ponderous ironies of the movie proper that it would be churlish to protest that this world needs no introduction, and that even the most sheltered Gentile who once stumbled upon a few minutes of Annie Hall while channel surfing will be fluent in the language of cheerfully stoical pessimism.
Having established Jewishness as a kind of genetic anxiety, the action switches to 1967, where the physics professor Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) is besieged by woes. A student is trying to bribe him into bumping up a recent exam grade; the academic tenure committee has received letters besmirching his name; and Larry's wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), confesses that she is in love with the enormous and docile Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who appears brandishing a nifty Bordeaux and some words of almost conjugal reassurance. "Larry, we're going to be fine," purrs Sy, cradling the cuckold in a mismatched embrace of the King Kong/Fay Wray variety.
Stuhlbarg must have been thrilled to land the lead in a Coen brothers movie, but how did he feel when he realised the role could only be played as one long, hapless reaction shot? Perhaps the same as those minor cast members who, had they requested the directors' help with their characters, can't have been told much more than "You wear callipers" or "Your sinuses are congested". Corporeal revulsion has been present in the Coens' work on and off since their 1984 debut, Blood Simple. It's a sign either of single-mindedness or of dysfunction that the intervening years have done nothing to temper their disgust at the human form.
When the fictional playwright Barton Fink, in the Coens' 1991 film of the same name, was put through the psychological wringer, he was paying the price for his pretentiousness and condescension. This didn't mitigate that movie's misanthropy, but it was at least possible to identify its source. When Larry is subjected to the full Barton Fink treatment in A Serious Man, the only explanation is that he's a victim of a cosmic injustice that the film equates with his Jewishness. Judith's plea for a divorce is met by Larry with a passive protest that becomes a kind of catchphrase: "I haven't done anything!" he whines. Later he uses those words when tackling a caller from the Columbia Record Club who patiently explains that it is Larry's inactivity in not sending back each month's album that has left him liable for subscription fees.
The argument persists that a man can find himself in grave trouble simply by doing nothing. But even when Larry gives assertiveness a go - challenging a boorish neighbour, or seeking religious guidance - he is thwarted by the kind of arbitrary cruelties without which no Coen brothers film would be complete. A Serious Man reproduces that sense of disappointment and anticlimax on every level - from Larry's interest in a sexually uninhibited neighbour to his quest to meet the revered and elusive elderly rabbi. If it's a Kubrickian joke that these controlling directors have made a work that defines life itself as an absence of control, then it's scarcely more amusing than the suggestion here that an entire people may have misfortune hard-wired into their DNA.
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