A Serious Man
As the credits role, the Coen brothers assure us that “No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture”. Well, correct me if I’m wrong but the protagonist, Larry Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) was rather egregiously hurt, the entire movie acting as a trial by fire for his character (and I might be an atheist but I definitely felt wronged by the final scenes).
Larry is a mild mannered, Jewish physics lecturer in 1960’s mid-western America and who’s life is quickly disintegrating. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for a smarmy and sanctimonious widower named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), his dislike for Larry going beyond the usual conventions. Even the Gopnik children are bastards, stealing money from their father’s wallet to fund a fledgling drug habit and future rhinoplasty, never once acquiescing or showing any degree of respect. Crashing on his couch and later keeping Larry company in the local motel is Arthur (Richard Kind), Larry’s brother is no better.
Subverting the ideals of family and togetherness in a 60’s suburban setting might seem novel and almost new to a few people, but I’ve sat through too many recently that believe the same thing, perhaps the worst of these up until now being Revolutionary Road. Simply because they transform the residents of this bleak little pock on the ass of humanity into Jews doesn’t make anything new out of the formula. The brothers themselves grew up in such a place during the same period, perhaps mirroring the children in the piece with their pot smoking and rebellious music, but again the relevance isn’t there to a movie going audience unless they’ve lived the same life. They add nothing new to the collective dialogue, merely inflicting pain and suffering on the protagonist.
Worse still, the latter example’s characterizations and direction, despite everything I’ve said about it in the past is positively Oscar winning in comparison. The Coen brothers revel in stereotypes and caricatures to such an extent, no one is redeemable, let alone vaguely likable. There is no real motivation other than the church of self, even that coming from somewhere entirely other we are not allowed see. Larry himself, is an interesting protagonist of sorts in how he takes every bit of abuse thrown at him but without any noticeable progression or even inflection present, it quickly begins to grate. If perhaps the potential Job comparative held true, at least from an allegorical perspective I could appreciate it (even if I wouldn’t like it) but Job questioned and stood his ground against the Devil’s temptation whereas Larry eventually gives in and is constantly told that there is no meaning to it. Such a lack of meaning is only reinforced by the inclusion of as a scene filmed entirely in Yiddish establishes little except a potentially inherited curse (meaning fate is at fault for the Gopnik’s problems) or that we as humans put too much meaning in seemingly random events (as Taleb puts forward in ‘Fooled By Randomness’), attempting to make everything explainable. If the first is true, watching such misery without redeemable characters to fill the void before fate cause more destruction is not only condescending but a cop-out; the latter, although a slightly more appetizing option still cannot fill the void of elements needed in any basic story to succeed, nor does it offer any real conclusion to a story where nothing really happens.
I‘ve never been a fan of the Coen brothers and their comedies and so never expected to be surprised but never would I have imagined that I’d feel both my intelligence insulted and my time wasted within the space of 2 hours.