… Job in the Midwest …
Billed as a dark comedy, A Serious Man is a modern version of the story of Job. Larry Gopnik, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, is a likeable, responsible Jewish man, a Physics professor in a Midwestern university who’s terrific covering the blackboard with Heinsenberg’s uncertainty principle equations, his intensity indicating true passion for his subject. Piece by piece, though, everything goes wrong. His wife leaves him for another man who sends Larry off to stay at the local motel with his brother with the disgusting, suppurating sebaceous cyst. His daughter’s a narcissist, his son’s just this side of delinquent, his neighbor impinges on his property, etc… etc… The rabbis of his congregation can’t provide meaningful guidance and the lawyers don’t do any better, while running up big bills. Even when things pick up — against the odds, it seems, his son makes it through his Bar Mitzvah — they quickly sour.
That may sound interesting in outline — it works well in the Bible — but it’s not a good movie. For one thing, the characters just do whatever the film makers want them to in order to make life hard for Larry — nobody’s bothered to make them consistent. Why does his wife leave him? And then why does she warm up to him at the Bar Mitzvah? The writers give us no clue — maybe we’re supposed to fall back on Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle but that’s not good enough for the plot. Two days before the committee is to meet to consider Larry’s application for tenure at the University, the Chair drops by to mention it would be useful for Larry to let the tenure committee know of anything he’s published in his field. “I’ve done nothing,” Larry says, like it’s a new idea. Nonsense, he would know the score. And anyhow that’s not how the process works — why didn’t the Coen brothers bother to get things straight?
Although Larry is the main character, visually and otherwise the movie feels as if it’s told from a child’s point of view. There are many close-ups of older people’s hairy ears, droopy noses and overlarge, wet mouths, uniformly yucky. In one scene, Larry’s son actually does face a rabbi who seems terrifying but turns out a humbug, like the Wizard of Oz. Most important for the character of the movie, though, Larry’s helplessness is like that of a child in an adult world, his struggle lacks Job’s metaphysical strength.
This seems like a grudge movie — an ugly tone of old resentments. Let’s get back at the fathers, mothers, teachers, rabbis — all those hypocrites, weaklings and moral cop-outs who call themselves adults. Didn’t the Coen brothers take well to the guidance, religious and otherwise, they received as boys? Who knows? The worst thing the rabbis do in the film is fail to explicate the meaning of life, nor do they solve the problem of evil. It’s hard to hold those failures against anybody, even Heisenberg.