The Coen brothers’ uncertainty principle

Featuring Jews in 1960s Minnesota struggling with the mystery of being, A Serious Man is a seriously good film.

Nathalie Rothschild

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For American artists with Jewish backgrounds there always seems to be a reserve goldmine from which to dig out quirky characters, tales of youthful mischief and old world-isms. The microcosm of American Jewish neighbourhoods – where fumbling boys experiment with pigtailed girls, steal money from collections for the Jews in Palestine, and enrage their elders – have provided many entertaining and considered meditations on modern life in general. And now to Woody Allen’s Queens, Philip Roth’s Newark and Neil Simon’s Brooklyn, we can add Joel and Ethan Coen’s Minnesota, where their latest film, A Serious Man, is set.

However, this is no nostalgia trip or celebration of Jewish traditions. The suburban, 1960s Jew-dominated landscape of A Serious Man is a non-schmaltzy, sun-drenched flat landscape of ticky-tacky duplexes fitted with satellite dishes and identical square lawns and inhabited by bored housewives, country-club members and pot-smoking teenagers. It is an insular community, which looks at the outside world with nervousness and derision. The only non-Jews that our loser-hero, physics professor Larry Gopnik, interacts with are his white-trash, gun-toting ‘goy’ neighbours and a Korean student who tries to bribe his way to a pass grade.

In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Cohen brothers set Homer’s Odyssey in the 1930s deep south. Here, they put Larry Gopnik through a modern-day version of the trials of Job, in a time when America was about to be hit by winds of anti-conformism and social upheaval, where the certainties of old were questioned and turned on their heads. And so they are for Larry, whose trials and tribulations will have you squirming, cringing, gawping and guffawing.

Physics professor Larry Gopnik is a freier, a sucker, whose cushy life is shredded to pieces as his tzuris mount. (A Yiddish dictionary might come in handy when watching A Serious Man.) His hectoring wife demands a get, a ritual divorce, so that she can re-marry the smarmy Sy Ableman; Larry is forced to move into a Jolly Roger motel with his snoring brother, who nurses a sebaceous cyst and works on a ‘probability map of the universe’, the Mentaculus; the Columbia Record Club is chasing Larry for a membership fee for a scheme he never signed up to; an anonymous adversary is sending letters to Larry’s tenure committee; Larry’s daughter is stealing money from him to fund a nose job; it’s only two weeks until the Bar Mitzvah of Larry’s truant son, Danny, who is more interested in getting stoned than in rehearsing his Torah portion; and as Larry’s legal bills pile up, resisting the temptation to pocket those hundred dollar bills that the Korean student indiscreetly left on his desk gets harder and harder.

‘Why me? What have I done to deserve this?’ cries Larry. A friend tells him that while it’s not always easy to figure out what God is trying to tell us, at least as Jews they have a lot of wonderful stories and traditions to seek answers from. The friend wears leg braces.

Are the Coens laughing at the Jews? No, the Coens are laughing at Larry’s – and man’s – futile attempts to find answers to the riddles of the universe, whether it’s through consulting rabbis and folk tales or quantum mechanics. And the Coens are laughing at man’s inability to accept coincidence, an inability which leads us irrationally to cling to unearthly mysteries and conspiracy theories instead of, as the medieval rabbi Rashi, quoted with some irony at the start of A Serious Man, said: ‘Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.’

In other words, the Coens are still sardonically cynical. Yet there is a warmth and humanity to this film, too. After all, Gopnik, who struggles to be a good, responsible person, is also the only character with whom it is possible to sympathise. As the contemptuous, conniving Sy Ableman is described, in posterity, as a serious man, Gopnik, echoing Job, insists that he, too, is an upright person. But he is left to wrestle with the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people.

While Larry seeks the council of rabbis – one tells him to take pleasure in the small wonders in life, like parking lots; a second recounts a fascinating but pointless story about a ‘goy’ with Hebrew letters imprinted in the back of his teeth; a third is unwilling to see Larry because he’s too busy thinking – his unemployable, unmarriable brother Arthur has reached an altogether more despondent state: ‘Hashem hasn’t given me shit!’ he cries.

‘Why’, Larry asks one of the clue-less rabbis, ‘does God make us feel the questions if he’s not going to give any answers?’. Larry seeks and seeks, tries and tries, but he is left with tortuous uncertainty – the theme which permeates A Serious Man.

The film opens with an epilogue set in the kind of shtetl in Eastern Europe in which the Gopniks’ ancestors would have lived. A couple is visited by an old man whom the wife, convinced the visitor is a dybbuk (a malicious spirit) stabs in the chest. Was it a dybbuk or a human? Did the woman kill him (the dybbuk/human staggers out of the house before we discover the extent of his injuries)? We never find out. Just like Larry’s students will never find out whether or not Schrödinger’s cat was killed by the poison.

Later, Larry illustrates Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle on a gigantic, cluttered blackboard before telling his perplexed students they must memorise the equation for their mid-term exams. Meanwhile, Danny rehearses for his Bar Mitzvah from an LP version of the Torah, without knowing what the words mean because he spends his Hebrew classes stoned and listening to Jefferson Airplane on a transistor radio.

In a scene with the most wonderful depiction of a rabbi in cinematic history, Danny gets his confiscated transistor radio back, along with a lesson from the most wise and learned man known to Minnesotan Jews: ‘When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies, don’t you want somebody to love?’

It could be as simple as that. But, in any case, it is a great fortune that humanity’s historical unwillingness to accept a state of not knowing, the itching curiosity which characterises the human species, leads to such wonderful explorations into the mystery of being as the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

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