Michael Stuhlbarg dealing with a lot of tsuris in “A Serious Man”
by Joe Pudas
***SPOILER ALERT*** (This article contains spoilers for the film “A Serious Man” throughout. Just FYI.)
Despite my initial hesitation, I now wholeheartedly embrace the Academy’s controversial decision to nominate five additional films for Best Picture. This expansion clearly benefited movies like “Up” and “District 9,” popular summer hits that otherwise wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of breaking into the Oscar race. Yes, I’m still rolling my eyes about “The Blind Side” being included amongst the year’s best, but there’s always at least one shitty movie that burrows its way into the running (I have more of a problem when the black sheep actually wins – “Crash” winning in 2006 was especially painful).
But as cool as it was to see something as grungy and genre-specific as “District 9” snag a nomination, I wasn’t shocked. After all, that was the purpose of the expansion, was it not? 2008 was a particularly weak year, so when “The Dark Knight” and “WALL-E” were snubbed while lukewarm December Oscar bait like “Frost/Nixon” and “The Reader” were feted instead, everyone bitched. Basically, the Academy miffed an opportunity to attract more viewers and discredited itself by obstinately failing to recognize two of the year’s best movies. When the expansion was announced early in 2009, it seemed drastic and reactionary. If 2009 was anything like 2008, there might not even be ten movies worth nominating for anything.
Fortunately, 2009 was a markedly better year for cinema (at least in my opinion). I can’t finalize my top ten list until “The White Ribbon” finally comes to my area, but half of the films nominated for Best Picture are on it. Two of the more Oscar bait-y winter movies – “The Road” and “Invictus” – did not make the Academy’s cut. That’s a step in the right direction. This is a strong crop of nominees, but none of them really surprise me.
Except for “A Serious Man.”
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the hell out of “A Serious Man.” While it barely missed my top ten, it was absolutely one of my favorite movies of the year. I don’t think it reaches the heights of “No Country For Old Men,” which everyone and their brother agrees is a masterpiece, but it’s one of the Coen brothers’ best movies yet – loony, unpredictable, hilarious, stylish, full of cynical wit. It garnered mostly praise from critics, did fairly modest art-house business, and will most likely gain a cult following on DVD and Blu-Ray. Many pundits correctly predicted it would be one of the ten Oscar nominees, but I would have bet the house against it. I thought a playfully dark little oddity like “A Serious Man” had no chance when placed against more straightforward films like “Invictus” and “Crazy Heart.” Once proven wrong, I was – and still am – completely shocked. Is this the weirdest movie ever nominated for Best Picture?
I rented “A Serious Man” last week and re-watched it on Blu Ray (it’s a gorgeous transfer, by the way), thinking it might seem less weird and/or more accessible. It is my pleasure to report that it played just as weird and nebulous as I had remembered. This is one of the Coen brothers’ strangest films, and they’ve made some of the most peculiar, offbeat cinema of our generation. I know the Coens have officially become Oscar darlings after “No Country For Old Men,” but that film, for all its nihilism and its refusal to play out expectedly, is also a rip-roaring crime thriller complete with a MacGuffin (the same goes for “Fargo”). This is a relentlessly skeptical, bitterly funny movie drenched in Jewish humor and culture about a put-upon man who never discovers why his life has unraveled. No thriller backdrop, no colorful villain, no MacGuffin – unless you consider the “meaning of life” a MacGuffin. Just a crisis of faith and a fruitless search for answers that ends vaguely. That sounds more like a Palme D’Or winner or an Independent Spirit Award nominee than a Best Picture contender.
What I love most about “A Serious Man” is how unabashedly Coen-esque it is. After the critical success of “No Country For Old Men” and the stellar financial performance of “Burn After Reading,” the Coen brothers could pretty much do whatever they wanted. I knew we were in for an outlandish flick when the trailer first came out. It was artful, repetitive, and a little bit creepy, scoring its footage to the insistent sound of Michael Stuhlbarg’s head being repeatedly smashed into a blackboard.
“A Serious Man” indeed lives up to its trailer. The Coen brothers set the tone with an amusing prologue in which a Yiddish couple contemplates whether or not a visitor is a ghost (or dybbuk). We are first prompted to believe that he is a ghost, then it is suggested he may not be, and by the time Jefferson Airplane is blaring over the opening credits, we can’t be sure either way. The film leaps ahead to 1967 and never references the opening scene, although its ambiguity is reflected in everything that subsequently transpires.
As I interpret it, the only two events that will have any lasting impact beyond the film occur right in the beginning and just before the end. Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg) gets a check-up at the doctor’s office and will have to await test results. His son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), is unable to pay a classmate named Fagel for some weed he’d purchased from him because of complications involving the confiscation of his Walkman. These events are deliberately intercut and will be paid off in the last sequence of the film: Larry, having essentially solved all of his other problems, receives uncertain but ominous news about his test results; and Danny, having resolved his various issues, prepares to pay Fagel back just as a tornado rages toward him.
Larry’s doctor’s appointment is never referenced again and we are made to forget about it once the film’s central developments start to kick in. Conversely, Danny’s minor debt to Fagel is constantly mentioned and reiterated. When the end credits roll, Larry must face his presumably negative prognosis and eventual death, while Danny, just as he’s about to reach his film-long goal of paying Fagel back, stares down a tornado that will most likely engulf and kill him like he’s Cary Elwes in “Twister.” Along the way, the Coens guide us through a series of absurd misadventures steeped in Jewish culture, trippy dream sequences, and copious pot smoke. These are not the hallmarks of a traditional Oscar hopeful.
“And this proves we don’t really know about anything.”
I found the key scene of “A Serious Man” to be the first dream sequence, in which Larry finishes writing out the mathematical formula to the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle on a comically oversized blackboard. He finishes his work, the Coens cut to an extreme wide shot that emphasizes how huge the blackboard is, and he exasperatedly exclaims, “This proves that we don’t really know about anything.” This is a man who is a physics professor – more specifically, a man whose life has been spent studying and teaching the math behind existence (the “music of the spheres” as Patton Oswalt would say). Even though Larry is better equipped intellectually to explain the mysteries of life through tangible mathematics, he is just as unable to determine the meaning of anything as the rest of us.
But throughout the film, he seeks answers. Desperately. Why is his wife suddenly leaving him for a touchy-feely mutual friend? How is he supposed to handle a tricky bribe situation involving a failing student? When and how can he persuade the wise old Rabbi Marshak to see him? If we take the Jewish proverb that opens the film’s prologue – “receive with simplicity everything that happens to you” – to heart, it seems the Coens are suggesting that Larry’s quest is futile because certain, irrefutable answers to life’s great mysteries are impossible. The best we can do is accept them and move on, not spin our wheels puzzling over the “meanings” behind them. Larry’s biggest problem ends up being his health, the one thing he wasn’t sweating. Danny thinks his biggest problem is his failure to pay Fagel back, but the oncoming storm that appears like a deus ex machina from Hashem becomes his chief priority instantaneously.
What happened after Richard Kind tried to solicit a prostitute.
The most striking element of “A Serious Man” for me was the Coens’ manipulative management of expectations. On more than one occasion, the Coens deliberately set up a situation so that we anticipate its result, only to pull the rug out from us. When the police first visit Larry’s house in order to investigate his brother Arthur’s (Richard Kind) illegal gambling manual, we expect to see them again. The second time, when they are taking Arthur into custody, Larry and we assume it’s because of his gambling scheme; but it is for attempted solicitation of a prostitute – something we were completed unprepared for. Here’s another example: throughout the first half of the film, Larry receives what he thinks are important phone calls from Danny, only to find out Danny’s just pissing and moaning because his favorite TV show’s reception is fuzzy. But at one point when he receives yet another one of Danny’s calls, he and we assume it must be about the TV reception, but instead Danny is calling to tell Larry to come home because his mother is upset (over Sy Ableman’s sudden death).
“A Serious Man” is rife with uncertainty in nearly every scene. The increasingly violent nightmares that assault Larry in the second half are first easy to distinguish from reality, but they become subtler and start to last longer before jarring us “awake” with something that is clearly running on dream logic. Larry’s boss frequently drops by to reassure him that he will probably make tenure, but his tentative body language suggests otherwise. We never learn who was writing the eloquent letters denigrating Larry to the tenure board; Larry’s wife Judith (Sari Lennick) informs him that Sy Ableman had been writing letters to the board, but it isn’t clear that he’s the slanderous culprit. Sy had already succeeded in smoothly spiriting Judith away without incurring criticism from the community or resistance from Larry, so what purpose would he have to compromise Larry’s tenure?
And so it goes throughout the film. We expect a severely pot-addled Danny to fuck up his Hebrew recitation at his bar mitzvah, but he is able to power through it with a helpful nudge from the rabbi. We expect Larry to get in his hot neighbor’s pants, but instead they smoke pot and spend a lazy afternoon together before Arthur arrives back at the house in handcuffs for his sexual transgressions. We expect some kind of violence or at least lasting unpleasantness from Larry’s other, hostile neighbor, but that only occurs as a non sequitur in Larry’s final nightmare. When Larry finally seeks the simplest solution to solve his problems – taking the student’s bribe money to pay for Arthur’s legal bills and avoid blackmail – he immediately receives the dire phone call from his doctor. The doctor’s phone call and the impending tornado both represent life’s next problems for Larry and Danny, and they appear so fatal and insurmountable that every other obstacle we’ve watched them overcome suddenly seem puny and insignificant.
What are we to make of this curious film? I found it pessimistic, essentially modifying the old adage “life sucks and then you die” into “life sucks, you’ll never know why, and then you die.” Not exactly triumph-of-the-human-spirit material. Some have found it to be an optimistic dramatization of Occam’s Razor in everyday life, demonstrating that the simplest answer is usually the best. That would explain the point behind the story of the goy’s teeth, one of the film’s funnier sequences: don’t fret over the how and why behind the message, just heed its advice (“helping others couldn’t hurt”). I get that perspective, but then again, this is a movie that consists almost entirely of a likable guy getting shit on by the world. What happens the moment he takes action to better his situation? He receives foreboding news about his health and a metaphorical storm cloud prepares to gobble up his son. The end. That’s all, folks!
Anyway, whether you love it, hate it, or feel somewhere in between, you have to admit that “A Serious Man” is a bizarre piece of work. When is the last time something even remotely this eccentric and unusual has been nominated for Best Picture? I have no answer for that.
And I guess what I’m saying is, I like that quite a bit. I like that something as atypical and idiosyncratic as “A Serious Man” is getting Oscar attention. The Academy may have primarily intended to expand the Best Picture category to include summer blockbusters, but now they’ve ended up unexpectedly honoring a truly unique, challenging film that would never have made the cut otherwise. Will this trend continue in years to come? It’s very uncertain, but for now, I’m feeling hopeful about the future of the Oscars.