From Jonah onwards, the Jews have been happy to write nebbishes into the part of divine liaison. Not for the Chosen People the luxury of a muscular charismatic leader to mediate between the Sacred and the profane. Given the choice between “Woody” Allen Konigsberg and “Terminator” Arnold Schwarzenegger, there’s barely a flicker of thought necessary.
If the Yiddish fable acted out in tableau at the beginning of the Coen brothers’ new film, “A Serious Man,” means anything, it means that we are lost on a vast plain of existence where to act and to not act seem equally foolish. But it is not clear that the scene does indeed mean anything. A husband (Allen Lewis Rickman) comes home in wonder after having received help from a stranger seemingly from nowhere. His wife (Yelena Shmulenson) doubts the provenance of the help and takes extreme action. The previously helpful stranger, now helpless guest (Fyvush Finkel) ends up staggering out again into the vast, cold plain, his motives as inscrutable as when he arrived.
This opening, conducted exclusively in Yiddish, and complete with period gunky teeth provides a context for the rest of the film in three important ways. First, it makes it clear that the beautifully delineated Minnesotan banality of the rest of the film has a broader resonance in terms of Jewish plains history. Second, it draws the conflicts beyond those of husband and wife to the epic or mock-epic lines of Good versus Evil. Finally, the acting sets the tone of excellence necessary for a film, such as “A Serious Man,” to navigate the difficult path between kitsch indulgence and meaningless piffle.
And, if there’s any doubt that this is a Jewish film with a capital “J” and a menorah emblazoned on the camera, the Yiddish scene gives way to a film structured around three visits to rabbis with a fourth ineffectual rabbi teaching Hebrew in the middle. Although he is a Minnesotan everyman, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a quintessentially Jewish one. He’s Coen brothers Jonah, bringing news of doom (probably his own) to a place whose biggest sin might be his own, blown outrageously large (and eventually, with a final stroke of the pen, petty and personal) through introspection.
Stuck between the awesome power of the Lord on the one hand, the equally ineffable might of his wife on the other and, as if fate was a ten-armed squid, the hands of two children, a tenure committee, a live-in brother (Richard Kind), a romantic rival and the aforementioned three rabbis, Gopnik is universally ineffectual. As a physics professor up for tenure, he is comfortable with the paradoxes of possibility, the strange lives of Schroedinger’s Cat and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, but he is proportionately uncomfortable with daily life. Straight from the Eugene Levy school of acting, Stuhlbarg outdoes his mentor, with help from a cast who seem entirely devoted to creating opportunities for his character to miss opportunities, cues and lifelines.
Chief enabler among the cast is Fred Melamed who plays Sy Ableman, Gopnik’s nemesis. A pompous egotist, Melamed’s Ableman is able to browbeat Gopnik with soothingly patronizing psychobabble to which he has no answer. From Gopnik’s perspective, Ableman is overpoweringly sophisticated. From the astonishment in the voices when he tells others about Ableman, for the audience he’s a gasbag. But it’s not just Ableman who is beyond Gopnik. Beyond him in a variety of ways are the sultry Jewish temptress Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker) — his neighbor on one side, the aggressively non-Jewish Mr. Brandt (Peter Breitmayer) — his neighbor on the other side — and the chair of his tenure committee Arlen Finkle (Ari Hoptman), who wrings his hands to better effect than any character since Uriah Heep.
The three rabbis Gopnik attempts to approach for guidance are more reminiscent of Kafka’s doorkeeper in “Before the Law” than any life coach or spiritual counselor. Insofar as they talk to him at all, the rabbis tell parochial stories of their own lives, discussing the parking lot wistfully or telling magical-realist tales with no obvious point or moral. In the latter, the non-Jew’s predicament is so forgotten that when Gopnik asks the rabbi what happened to him, Rabbi Nachtner responds “The goy? Who cares?” It is the same rabbi who later refers to Ableman, in crass hyperbole, as a possible “lamedvavnik.” Unlike Professor Gopnik who is entranced by his equations and what they say about the nature of reality, these rabbis are doorkeepers seemingly uninterested by their numinous guardianship. That they stand between people and what they want is more pertinent to them than the law they represent.
So how else to transcend the mundane world if not through quantum physics or spiritual enlightenment? The film is set in the 70s and wouldn’t be right without trying to take us to other realms by way of reefer. But again, our guides are hopelessly incompetent Virgils to the Dantes of suburbia. And, again, the Coen brothers capture the woeful and somewhat sympathetic shortcomings of their characters. The portrayal of the bar mitzvah from the perspective of a stoned bar mitzvah boy is a triumphal satire of an institution without recourse to farce: the lonely neighbor another institution dealt with in transcendent pastiche.
It is absurdly hubristic yet quintessentially human to try to dignify our brief and limited lives walking around in fleshy gasbuckets through personal reflection and social customs. We set our lives up to prolong that moment when the cartoon character rushes off the cliff and remains aloft through force of belief. We rush out of nothingness straining to look forward at the approaching thunderhead until we fall to our deaths. The serious genius of this film is to embrace and point out the contingent specificity, the physicality and the absurdity while maintaining its human dignity. Halfway through the film Gopnik reaches out to his useless tiring brother — who, in addition, has a disgusting sebaceous cyst in a constant state of being drained — and hugs him. O brother, there thou art.
Dan Friedman is the executive editor of the Forward. But when he’s not doing that, he’s writing a book about the rock band Tears for Fears.