Why do bad things happen to good people? It’s a basic if somewhat cliched question, true, but knowing the answer is essential to how you will perceive the latest dark opus of the Coen brothers, A Serious Man. The film’s prologue, a shtetl tale involving a husband, a wife, and a rabbi (who may or may not be possessed by a wandering malicious spirit called a dybbuk), asks the audience whether they believe that the events of our life are the machinations of a higher power with a master plan for us in mind, or if they believe that said events are merely part of living in a random and amoral universe where the best-intentioned of us can end up at the bottom of a burgeoning mountain of woes.
Larry, the film’s hero, struggles to answer that very question almost immediately after we’re introduced to him. Things start off cheerfully enough; he’s in good health, he seems to have clinched his tenure spot, and his son is about to be bar mitzvahed. But no sooner do we meet him than the rug is pulled out from under him, and in no time his once-ordered life begins to unravel around him as the Coens’ cruel comedy begins: Primarily, his wife wants to divorce him (and remarry the grandiloquent Sy Abelman, a close family friend), but Larry’s troubles don’t stop there. His son smokes pot and listens to the radio in school, his daughter steals from him (ostensibly to fund a nose job operation), his brother lives on his couch and attracts the attention of the police for gambling, a student attempts to both bribe and blackmail him, and his shot at tenure is threatened when the tenure committee receives anonymous letters defaming his character.
And that’s just the short list of Larry’s worries.
Larry, finding himself under assault on all fronts by either an undeserved streak of bad luck or a vengeful deity, seeks solace and assistance in combating his problems from a succession of rabbis, each as unhelpful as the last. From young, to older, to oldest, his spiritual leaders reliably fail to provide the guidance Larry so desperately needs; the first rabbi is too inexperienced to truly counsel Larry, the second relates a (seemingly) irrelevant parable about a Jewish dentist, his Goyish patient, and a message carved into the patient’s teeth, and the third turns him away. At first it appears that the Coens want to examine religion’s role in society under a harsh light by criticizing its inability to articulate why a man like Larry should suffer the endless ignominies of his life, and while that’s certainly the point it’s not the entire point. If the advice of the rabbis is obtuse, it’s at least sound– sometimes the best thing to do when reflection of life’s mysteries yields no explanation is to shrug and move on.
That’s not good enough for Larry. “But I haven’t done anything,” is his prevailing battle cry throughout the film; he has been wronged by the universe and he can find no relief until he understands why. That “why” is the central question of A Serious Man, and as is to be expected the Coens leave it up to the audience to answer the film’s challenge. Is Larry’s misfortune the work of an incensed god, or is it all just part of the human condition? Or is Larry himself responsible, at least partially, for his own misery? Yes, Larry hasn’t done anything wrong to warrant the tragedies that befall him; but at the same time that’s exactly the problem. He hasn’t done anything; he has not asserted himself in his own life and addressed, among other things, his marital problems or the situation with his couch potato brother. Then again it’s hard to imagine that Larry could possibly have brought the entire roof down on his own head, so to speak. So really, A Serious Man is as much about the inadequacies of the divine as it is about human uncertainty; nobody, not even the wise, can genuinely discern why bad unfortunate events happen to us.
At the eye of the film’s storm of moral decisions is Larry, brought to over-stressed life by Michael Stuhlbarg, an actor I’ve never heard of prior to seeing this film, and I’ll henceforth keep my eyes peeled for project he’s attached to; the man is truly brilliant here. Stuhlbarg’s depiction of Gopnik is nothing short of hapless, over-anxious genius; he appears almost permanently unkempt and harried, wide-eyed and alert as though he’s always on the look-out for where the next ordeal is coming from. It’s natural that we should feel sympathetic towards Larry and his plight, but Stuhlbarg doesn’t just ride on token goodwill for his character; Larry is the kind of man who would comfort his brother (the wonderful Richard Kind) in his own time of need, and he succeeds where any of the film’s religious advisers would fail. Stuhlbarg strikes a perfect balance between the layers of Larry’s humanity and his confounded, neurotic exterior. This is a truly sterling performance, and one that the actor is sure to be remembered for years from now.
And if this is a shining gem in Stuhlbarg’s career (he is primarily, as I understand it, a stage actor), then so too is it a new high in the Coens’ body of work. A Serious Man might be their most polished and nuanced film yet; it is a jaded portrayal an angry god’s terrible vengeance upon the least-deserving person in the entire movie, an examination of the indiscriminate nature of the universe we exist in, or a portrait of a man who has brought all of the film’s misery unwittingly upon himself. If 2007’s No Country for Old Men felt bleak to you, then A Serious Man will likely feel downright austere, or perhaps more akin to a cruel prank than anything else: Comfort is offered, but only for so long before it is utterly smothered, a mean reversal at the end of a mean film to be sure but without a doubt the kind of maneuver we’ve come to expect from the Coens. The abrupt ending, and the perceived attacks on tradition, will certainly turn many away from this film, but it is undoubtedly their blackest gem yet, and also their most finely crafted and refined. With A Serious Man, the brothers have once again out-done themselves at charting the grim and the hopeless.