Ethan and Joel Cohen‘s A Serious Man is a very funny, very bleak movie. It is very funny because it points out that life is really quite ludicrous, a gigantic joke at our expense; it is very bleak because it points out that life is really quite ludicrous, a gigantic joke…you see where I’m going with this. Life isn’t just one damn thing after another; very often, it’s just one damn painful, miserable, mystifying thing after another. Its terminus–death–doesn’t promise much more than a continuation of the same mysteries that plagued us during our conscious, waking lives.
Larry Gopnik is a physics professor–seeking tenure–who is used to abstruse mathematics making clear the perplexing details of the reality it purports to model; he can master its seemingly inexplicable formalisms better than he can the incomprehensible actions of the humans around him. His wife wants to leave him for another man, one who imagines himself a rabbi in disguise; his students don’t like the grades he gives them; his kids are proving, yet again, that you have no idea who your kids really are. And his rabbis and his faith can offer little consolation, except to descend into the kinds of homilies and bromides that can only comfort those who utter them. Life seems cruel, relentlessly, puzzlingly so.
Tales of middle-aged men encountering crisis and dysfunction at the workplace and at home are familiar to us (consider American Beauty for instance). Our protagonists sometimes transcend these cosmic misfortunes; perhaps they find new talents in themselves, or in those that surround them; perhaps they indulge in dramatic acts that are supposed to jolt them out of their grooves–they engage in various versions of getting tattoos, buying sports cars, or finding lovers half their age. Larry Gopnik does none of these; rather, bemused and befuddled by the endless series of insult and injury sent his way, he seeks help again and again, hoping desperately that he will find answers and solace. (His encounters with his sexy, sunbathing-in-the-nude neighbor, despite involving the lighting up of marijuana joints, do not lead to therapeutic sexual consummation.) None, of course, is forthcoming.
A classic, well-worn trope in cinema that provides agonizing tension is the depiction of fragile hope: a condemned prisoner is promised deliverance, sees it on the horizon, and then has it snatched away. The narrative arc of A Serious Man is similar: we fear for Larry’s fate, we dare to hope as his star rises, and then, in the movie’s brutal, unrelieved ending, as storm clouds gather (literally), we learn that that hope was illusory. Life might not just be indifferent to us; it might actually be against us.
This last possibility is the most unnerving of all; it is hinted at by the movie’s epilogue, in which the Coen Brothers present us with a Jewish folktale, about a family who might have brought a curse down on their heads by inviting a dybbuk across their threshold. Gopnik might be their descendant; perhaps he is merely paying for the sins of his ancestors. But the tale itself leaves it unclear which sin could have provoked the cosmos’ curse–bringing a dybbuk home or assaulting a harmless old man.
In the end, none of it matters. We will all die; we will often be miserable and unhappy; we will receive no satisfactory answers to our most anguished and persistent queries. This is an absurd state of affairs. No wonder we are a species whose laughter turns to tears, which often finds humor in the misfortune of others. We are a joke, and in our clearest moments, we know it.