I’ve always believed that the good things in life come to us at particular moments when we most need them or are most ready for them. The best books, the best music, the best people – none of it is random; it has a sacred significance which perhaps reveals itself much later when you’re able to connect the dots. With these thoughts it’s a lil difficult to write about a film that is basically about randomness; about a hapless soul’s search for meaning in a universe that will do anything to strip every object, every individual, every event of meaning. To search for meaning in such an existential, absurd universe is akin to the endless wait for Godot.
A Serious Man tells the story of physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose world is slowly disintegrating. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for a someone who is little more than a lecherous pontificating creep; to add insult to injury she wants Sy to move in and Larry to stay at the Jolly Roger; his overweight, mentally-challenged brother Albert (Richard Kind) sits on the couch all day and attracts the attention of the local police; his son Danny is doing drugs and owes money, while his daughter wants a nose job. Typical cozy picture of dysfunctional American suburbia, huh?Every scene is treated with the Cohen brothers’ trademark irreverence and humour. Be it Danny’s bar mitzvah, or the encounters between Larry and the rabbis who he meets to try and understand why he’s being singled out for such treatment. The thing abt the Cohen brothers is that they, apart from Woody Allen in parts, are the only guys who can show you a film abt a man losing everything or a bizarre murderous psychopath and yet make you laugh. Sure, it’s an uncomfortable laughter, one which is accompanied by the feather-touch awareness along your spine that you wouldn’t want to inhabit the universe he’s describing, but the laughter is there. You laugh even as you feel sorry for Larry. I could particularly empathise with Larry’s puzzlement when a long & circuitous conversation with a senior rabbi ends with the devastating words, “We can’t know everything.” No wonder he retorts, “Sounds like you don’t know anything.”
Though this film was made after their Oscar winner No Country for Old Men (NCFOM), I’d like to see this as a prelude to that story of relentless, needless violence where the flip of a coin decides a man’s fate (the coin flip scene in NCFOM is one of the best scenes in film history ever.) The usual rules, promises and tokens are rendered hollow and ludicrous in these films. Why so many people die in NCFOM while the sheriff survives in that other great Cohen brothers’ film - Fargo - can all be attributed to their singular vision of this existential universe where everything is accidental.
I’m sure we are all disturbed by randomness, by chance, by events unfolding one way or the other because a coin flip changed the direction of our lives. We’ve always been led to believe that this isn’t so – that we shape our destinies, that no wrong ever goes unpunished, blah blah. It is to the Cohen brothers’ credit that their nihilism is appealing. I can even say I find it oddly comforting sometimes – just fuck the universe and do what needs to be done.
But while Larry is a victim, there is something profoundly moving about the manner in which he struggles to lead his life even as it’s coming apart at the seams. He just does what needs to be done, doesn’t crib or moan, seeks wisdom from those he supposes can help him and goes abt his way. And when all fails, he claims quietly, “I’ve tried to be a serious man, I’ve tried to do right.”
A Serious Man begins with a prologue in which a married woman stabs an elderly man whom she believes to be a dybbuk (malicious spirit who enters a living person and controls their life.) The story bears no relation to the main story which follows. To look for a connection is as absurd as Larry’s attempts to rationalise his predicament. That’s the singular beauty of this film: nothing is ever proved, nothing confirmed and no solace offered. There’s no way of knowing: the film is full of characters who talk about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, whether or not actions have consequences, and the need to “accept the mystery”. And so we go on about our sorry lives – naïve, unsuspecting, unprepared, fearful.
In the end I was left with just one thought – we are angry when we can’t find the reasons, but perchance we found the reasons, would grief have been any less?