Saturday, December 12, 2009

Movies: A Serious Man

The Coens get back to what works in A Serious Man—a kind of 1960s version of The Big Lebowski, more tightly focused, steeped in Judaism and wreathed in wisps of marijuana smoke. A contemporary Job, small-potatoes physics professor Larry Gopnik finds his orderly word to be suddenly out of order. It begins with a Korean exchange student attempting to bribe him for a passing grade, and swiftly progresses to a proposed incursion on his rancher’s property line by the too-American neighbors, a request for divorce from his wife, a car accident, an urgent call from his doctor to discuss test results, and certain financial ruin, not to mention extreme emotional strain. Swirling around him are other such peripheral troubles as a jobless brother with a gambling problem and a cyst that needs constant draining, the warm-mouthed, paunch-bellied widower who is courting his wife, and a son too busy getting high and running from the neighborhood bully to prepare for his bar mitzvah.

The trajectory of the film is preëstablished by a sepia-toned short in which a 19th century Russian Jewish couple argue in their home in front of a guest as to whether the old man is or is not an evil spirit; the husband, who has befriended the bearded stranger after an accident on the road, thinks his appearance is a blessing, for he is a family friend of his wife’s. The wife, who heard that the man died three years ago of typhus, thinks that his appearance is a curse, and stabs him in the chest with an ice pick. The bright-eyed visitor is slow to show signs of pain, but eventually bleeds, then wanders back out into the snow. The husband cries that they are ruined because of her murder; she closes the door, certain that they are saved because of her vigilance.

During the movie proper, Gopnik’s car wreck is mirrored by another, but fatal car wreck: that of Sy Ableman, the widower-lover of Gopnik’s wife, who is called at his funeral (for which somehow Gopnik finds himself paying) “a serious man,” by the Rabbi Nachtner. After Gopnik has visited the over-zealous Junior Rabbi Scott, and the more senior but equally useless Rabbi Nachtner, asking, as a good Jew must, why it is that God is forsaking him, he tries to see the aged and wise Rabbi Marshak, stammering to his secretary that he is—that he has tried to be—a serious man. Marshak, who is busy thinking, refuses to see him, but towards the end of the film, does see Gopnik’s son, for the only work he still does is converse on the Sabbath wit the boy being bar mitzvahed. To this boy, he slowly and sagely says, “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies,” and then pulls from his drawer the boy’s transistor radio, confiscated from him at Hebrew school at the film’s start.

He is quoting, of course, the Jefferson Airplane song that has become the film’s theme, and this is the film’s most brilliant and hysterical moments. Gopnik senior so desperately wants the old man’s wisdom, but it’s given instead to his jejune boy. And yet, it promises to address the man’s crisis—his job, his marriage, and his entire reality are not what he thought they were. But just as that song asks questions without offering answers, the Rabbi Marshak offers no actual answers (“be a good boy,” he says)—and neither does the film. Though the bar mitzvah goes off without a hitch and husband and wife are brought closer by their child’s achievement, and though a colleague from the tenure committee drops by Gopnik’s office to tell him that the news will likely be good, the film ends before we’re given confirmation, before the divorce is called off, and while a tornado is visible on the horizon, and the doctor’s office is on the phone. We are a little disgruntled, but what else could we expect? The film is about uncertainty itself, so cannot offer any certain conclusion.

*Even if everyone else liked No Country For Old Men, I considered it a failure.

No comments: