Joel and Ethan Coen are pretty popular directors around here. With Alex selecting the Coens’ 2009 offering A Serious Man for his first-ever presentation, they became the first directors to reach the four-film plateau at Cinema 1544 without the help of a Winter Marathon to triple them up in the first place. (Winter-Marathon-assisted directors: Woody Allen, Sergio Leone, Billy Wilder)
This film, though, is a bit odd, even for Coen standards and with the paucity of plot, it probably deserves a bit more reflection than summary (but I’ll give you both).
Larry Gopnick, our protagonist, is a Jewish tenure-track physicist teaching at an unnamed university in Minnesota in the late 1960s. He’s up for tenure, but it’s not the smoothest process, considering that his tenure chair has let drop that somebody is sending anonymous letters to the tenure committee besmirching Larry’s personal reputation (presumably in terms of sexual perversions).
Larry’s family has their own special problems. His daughter is…well, she’s just a teenage daughter. His son is secretly a pot-smoking loser who is having trouble in his Jewish school. His wife, well, she drops a bomb on Larry early on in the film, asking him for a ritual divorce so that she can marry Sy, one of their mutual friends.
To top that, his brother Arthur is also living in the house, sleeping on the couch and spending most of his time scribbling jibberish in a notebook about “a probability map of the universe”. At least, until Larry’s wife kicks him out to the local motel, where Arthur joins him. (“It’s got a pool”, she says, and you almost forget the line until it upstages a scene between Larry and Arthur by being completely lacking in water.) Arthur is eventually going to get charged with solicitation and sodomy, but for now, he’s just irritating.
Larry also has a struggling Asian student who, after trying to talk his way into a better grade, slips an envelope onto Larry’s desk with a big ol’ wad of cash in it. Larry objects, but the student denies having placed the envelope there. Subsequently the student’s father threatens Larry with a lawsuit, either for defamation if he claims the money came from his son or for keeping the money if he doesn’t change his son’s grade. Neither really works as a basis for a lawsuit, but he’s probably a first-generation American so you can’t blame him for trying.
In the midst of all of his troubles, Larry tries to get advice from the Rabbis at his congregation, but he seems to get little but the story of a Jewish dentist who discovers a Hebrew cry for help on the back side of a Goy patient’s teeth. The story actually goes nowhere – the dentist never figures out how this could possibly have happened, and after years of searching for messages on other patients’ teeth he eventually just moves on. God speaks to us in mysterious ways, Larry. Sometimes just as a prank.
One of these mysterious ways comes when Larry is on the roof adjusting the TV antenna and he sees his neighbor in her backyard sunbathing nude. Her husband is never around and Larry finally gets up the nerve to make a move – hey, it’s not like his wife is faithful or anything! – but nothing ever actually comes of the relationship but Larry’s first pot experience. If only he knew what his son was doing with the twenties that have been disappearing from his wallet!
Speaking of nerve, the nerviest of all the characters in the film might be Sy, a friend indeed who goes to a lot of trouble to console an understandably unreceptive Larry as he is stealing his wife from him. Sy, however, manages to get himself into a fatal car accident, at which point Larry’s wife sits Shiva and insists that Larry pay for the funeral. So maybe SHE’S got the most nerve. Then again, she justifies this largely by how much Sy truly wanted to help Larry – she points out unwittingly that Sy even wrote letter after letter to Larry’s tenure committee in his recommendation (or so she thought!) So maybe the nerviest character was Sy after all.
With all that has happened in the film, it’s easy to forget about a routine chest X-ray that Larry had at the beginning of the film. He sure did. But just as he has gotten a hint from his chair that he’ll be granted tenure, he sits down in his office to open his mail and finds a ridiculously large legal bill stemming from either the divorce proceedings or his brother’s legal defense (or both, does it matter?) For the first time he reconsiders the bribe he received from his student, and he opens up his gradebook and changes the F to a C-. Exactly then the phone rings, and it’s the doctor. He wants to talk about the results of that chest X-ray. In person. Right now.
Simultaneously, a tornado is bearing down on his son’s school as the teacher is struggling with the storm shelter door.
No, seriously, that’s the end.
It’s a strange film. Larry invites the obvious comparisons to Job, but for the most part, that’s really as far as the film goes. Larry undergoes a series of trials which he gamely faces without ever seriously compromising his own values – until the final minute of the film, when his single sin is instantly brought to account not only upon his own head but upon his son’s as well. The juxtaposition is certainly not accidental. It’s the entire point – and in fact the only point – the film has to make. Everything else that happens in the film that isn’t directly related to Larry’s trials is complete filler. Of course, there was the pointless story of the Hebrew-etched teeth. On top of that, there’s a completely non-sequitur intro sequence which depicts a fictional Yiddish folk tale (by this I mean that such a folk tale didn’t exist, so the Coens made one up). Were it to be given even the merest hint of a wager between God and the Devil (see: Job, Faust) it would have been perfect. But seeing as it doesn’t, it’s nothing…why is it even in the film?
For all of this, I’m tempted to say that it’s not a good movie. On the other hand, it spends the better part of two hours building to a single moment, and it wastes no time casting its harsh judgment upon it. And that’s kind of cool. It’s just a really long journey to get there, and I’m not sure I need to take the journey again.