If God rests in the details, Jewish filmmakers tend toward heresy. When I heard that the new Coen brothers movie opened with a short sequence in Yiddish, I expected the usual sloppy shtick, with comedy as the excuse for ignorance. But the Yiddish of the opening sequence of A Serious Man is actually hyper-correct, and the first fade-in, of a bearded man making his way through a snow-bound street, resembles a Solomon Yudovin linocut—Yudovin having produced much sparer and darker images of Russian Jewish life than his contemporary Marc Chagall. It is the first of many surprises to be mined from this fascinating film.
The traveler in the snow has invited into his home a fellow Jew who helped him on the road. He feels blessed by this miracle of intervention, the more so as the stranger happens to know his wife. However, the wife, who had previously learned of the man’s death, is convinced that this benefactor is a reincarnated evil spirit, and she tests his reality with an ice pick. The bleeding victim exits the house before we see him die, leaving husband and wife equally convinced that the other was dangerously misguided and setting up the movie’s premise that we may as well “accept the mystery.”
Although the connection between the opening fable and the rest of the movie is never made explicit, the gender division between credulous men and skeptical women that prevailed in Jewish society of Eastern Europe carries over to Minneapolis of 1967. The American Midwestern hero Larry Gopnik, a decent and dedicated professor of physics with two children and a bungalow in the suburbs, is unprepared for his wife Judith’s announcement one day that she is leaving him for another man. Apparently, she finds it impossible to stay interested in what the critic David Denby calls “a schlep and a weeper.” Larry is the kind of guy who pays for his rival’s funeral when that sanctimonious interloper is killed in a car accident. Only later does he discover that his wife’s lover, while professing friendship, had been anonymously denouncing him to the university committee that is considering his tenure.
Larry’s son, Danny, and daughter, Sarah, take after their parents. About to celebrate his bar mitzvah, Danny mostly tunes out of the life around him while tuning in to Jefferson Airplane, F Troop, and pot. Given no religious instruction, Sarah is permanently frustrated and angry. The bane of her existence is her dysfunctional uncle Arthur, whom her father’s good nature has allowed to become a permanent boarder. Arthur gets into an escalating sequence of trouble that finally obliges Larry to shell out for an expensive defense attorney. Yet for all the trouble Arthur causes, the women of the family are Larry’s worst punishment. One would rather be jailed for life by the Gentile policewoman as portrayed by Frances McDormand in the Coen brothers’ earlier film Fargo than share one meal with the Gopnik women.
Larry’s unmerited punishment is meant to evoke that man in the Land of Uz who was “perfect and upright, and . . . feared God and turned away from evil.” He is offered a hefty bribe for raising the failing mark of a Korean student, tempted into fornication by a seductive neighbor, and driven to fantasies of murder by his burdensome brother, without for the longest time yielding to Satan’s entrapment. Less like Job than like the schlemiel of Jewish folk humor, Larry simply lacks the imagination to engage in the kind of thieving, adultery, and bearing false witness that goes on around him. He wants to believe in a perfect and upright world, and only when misfortune begins singling him out in earnest does he try to learn why bad things happen to good people.
Figuring that God holds the answer to the puzzle of injustice, Larry consults the experts, a hierarchy of rabbis, corresponding broadly to Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. Of course no synagogue on earth could ever contain such a trio. Exploiting the prerogatives of comedy, the Coens adapt the stereotypes of the Jewish joke in which three rabbis are asked whether one is supposed to say a brokhe over lobster (which is proscribed by Jewish law): The Orthodox rabbi says, “Lobster, what’s a lobster?” The Conservative rabbi says, “It depends.” The Reform rabbi says, “Brokhe? What’s a brokhe?” Along the same lines, when Larry comes to the junior rabbi to tell him that his wife wants a get, the rabbi asks, “A what?” having presumably never studied the requirements of ritual divorce in Jewish law. The Conservative-style rabbi spins out an ambiguous parable that discourages Larry even further, while the white-bearded Orthodox sage, Rabbi Marshak, remains inaccessible, presumably engaged in the higher realms of thought.
As this summary suggests, the film is, especially for secular Jews like Joel and Ethan Coen, astonishingly literate when it comes to its portrayal of Judaism. A Gentile student told me that in order to better understand the movie, she went to see it with a Jewish roommate who gave her a running explanation of its Jewish allusions. A middle-aged alumna of Hebrew school was dazzled by the authenticity of the desks and the grammar lesson she remembered from childhood. Not that all the film’s references are Jewish. Danny, for example, is trying to distance himself from the Hebrew school he is forced to attend, and Grace Slick’s rendition of “Somebody to Love” gets him into trouble when his transistor radio is confiscated during class by the teacher. The soundtrack keeps revisiting this song until, just after his bar mitzvah ceremony, Danny is granted the interview with Rabbi Marshak that was denied to his father.
Between heavy silences, the grizzled rabbi pronounces, “When the truth is to found . . . To be lies . . . All the hope . . . Within you dies.” God speaks in the language of man, and so, too, Rabbi Marshak speaks in the lyrics of Jefferson Airplane. He returns Danny’s gadget to him with the directive to be a good boy.
This serious movie in a comic vein, which is good enough to warrant this much attention, seems to lose its way only toward the end, when Larry allows himself to be corrupted. Granted tenure and possibly about to reunite with his wife, he yields to temptation for the first and only time by changing the failing grade of the student who attempted to bribe him. Though we understand that he does this only to pay for his brother’s legal defense, he is immediately “punished” by a phone call from his doctor implying that he is fatally ill. How does this relation between sin and retribution fit into the story of a man who is puzzled by the lack of correspondence between innocence and punishment? Is Larry now meant to realize that a lifetime of trying to be good can be compromised by a single wrongdoing? In funny ways, this movie probes the mystery of injustice. The doctor’s message seems morally reductive, too opportunistic considering the script’s otherwise more layered and sophisticated point of view.
The conclusion is much more successful when it turns from Larry to his son. Back in school after his bar mitzvah, Danny is released with the rest of the class by a tornado warning. The students are not shepherded into a basement but allowed out of doors, where Danny stares agape at the swirling black cloud, as if about to hear the Voice from the whirlwind. At last he is paying attention, and if we trust the movie, we believe he may become a serious man—at least as serious as the Minneapolis boys who made this movie. The expression of awe where there was once only boredom is a hopeful augury.
A Serious Man often slips into caricature, but one can make allowances for a comedy whose soundtrack includes one of the most haunting songs in the modern Yiddish repertoire. Composed by Mark Warshawski, one of the most popular Yiddish songwriters in Russia, “A Miller’s Tears” conveys the fears of an aging Jew who is being expelled from his land and wonders what will become of him and his hounded people. Though Larry is substantially better off than his ancestor, he seems burdened by the miller’s fears, as the singer Sidor Belarsky conveys them, one stanza at a time. The song hints at the way the Jewish past continues to haunt its American progeny—a mystery as potent as the unjust fate of good men.