Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Serious Man: Coen Brothers Get Seriously Good

Sometimes, movies based on a mathematical metaphor can get a bit too pat. In the hands of the Coen Brothers, however, there’s little worry – these boys are originals, and even the slickest “Big Bang Theory” physics set-up is handled with foreboding, mystery and style. It may seem at first that with this movie, and its focus on a nerdy, Jewish physics professor (and even a cast-member from "Big Bang"), the Coen Brothers have decided to capitalize on the success of Chuck Lourie’s up-and-coming sit-com about four science nerds (two of them Jewish) living at Standford, one of whom is dating a gorgeous blonde. But this film is about something much more than dorm-room dorks: at once more serious, as well as more darkly comic.

Lawrence Grupnick, the serious man and Jewish physicist in question, lives in the flat Midwestern landscape of 1967. I seriously relate to this man: he is, for all practical purposes, my father (which puts me in the position of Grupnick’s son, a Jefferson-Airplane listening Hebrew-School delinquent who is also a stand-in for the filmmakers). We children of second-generation Midwestern Jews who assiduously provided for their careers and families know exactly what Grupnick is going through: torn between the placid traditions of his parent’s faith, and the “new freedoms” of an America filled with cultures of all types (and people all around him taking advantage of such freedoms), this generation has to face modern troubles and heartbreak of divorce, drugs, and cultural integration for the first time. But with only their parent’s ancient culture to provide them with an inconclusive moral guidance, which seems impossible to translate to the modern condition, the immensity of their choices is nearly unbearable.

But back to the physics. When we first meet Lawrence, he’s explaining to his class the Schrodinger principal of uncertainty, and the story of Schroedinger’s cat. It’s the classic example of modern physics: The cat is in a box bombarded with one of Schroedinger’s modern uncertain particles. The particle is both in an “up” and a “down” state, until it’s observed. If the particle is “up,” it kills the cat. If not, the cat lives. So is the cat alive or dead? There’s no way to tell until you open the box. Or rather, the cat is NEITHER alive or dead, and your opening the box either kills it, or lets it live. That is: all is indeterminate, until you perceive it.

In response to Schrodinger’s idea that the grounding of reality was simply chance determined by our own particular efforts to observe, Einstein famously said, “God does not play dice with the universe.” This theorem of modern chance and perspective, however, is the central metaphor of the movie, and the Coen brothers proceed to set up a number of delicious Schrodinger experiments for Lawrence (including a beautifully directed pair of car accidents). Lawrence’s first test comes in the form of a Korean student who wishes to protest a failing grade. After the student leaves the office, Lawrence finds an envelope of money. He confronts the student. Did he leave that money as a bribe? How dare he accuse him, the student claims in his broken English. Such an accusation is defamation, and his father will sue. So he didn’t leave the money, Lawrence asks. Is grade passing, student queries back. I can’t change a grade, says Lawrence. Then it is mystery, the student replies.

A delicious scene of impossible choice is actually also how the movie opens: with a flashback to the old country in Prussia, and Lawrence’s ancestors. It’s a small bubba meissa (grandmother story) told in Yiddish. The husband invites a neighbor over for a drink after the neighbor helps him fix his cart. After he tells his wife about the visitor, the wife claims that the neighbor died three years ago, and the person the husband has invited is a dybbuck, an evil spirit. The husband protests, but then the neighbor is at the door. The wife pleads not to let him in, but he does. As the wife queries the visitor about his past (was he sick, did he die?) she decides to stab him with a kitchen knife to prove her case. He doesn’t die right away, but instead, staggers back out into the cold. Was he an evil spirit, as the wife claimed, or a real person who they’d just killed, in traditional Coen brothers way? That question now haunts Lawrence and his modern generation. How much of the wisdom of the old country is mere superstition, able to leave you nothing but dead…and how much is genuine wisdom, keeping at bay the evil of the world? Impossible to tell. It is mystery.

It’s at this time, when these stories start to come together, that you realize that the Coen’s are after something great and rare in film: a serious exploration of the presence of God in the world, the failing of traditional religion to leave modern Americans with a useful moral roadmap, and the ultimate meaning of life. I don’t mean “meaning of life” in a jokey, Hitchhiker’s Guide sort of way. I mean that the boys here are really going after the great existential questions: Is there a god, do our choices have meaning, how do we deal with life’s questions and tragedies? The last time a filmmaker went so deeply into these issues, and did it with a similar lighthearted, darkly comic touch, was Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. That was twenty years ago, and in combining the seriousness of a movie like No Country for Old Men with the deliciously ironic humor of a film like Hudsucker Proxy or Burn After Reading – but all with a bit more warmth for the characters – the brothers have produced probably their most integrated, if not their finest, work.

They’ve certainly learned a lot from filming the darkness of McCormack’s novel, and bringing that sense of foreboding evil into the ordinariness of the most ordinary: the middle-class Midwestern life. Every choice that Lawrence makes seems poised to bring down God’s judgment – and like Anton Chigurh, the assassin in Old Men, this is clearly the Old Testament god of wrath that Lawrence must contend with. It’s no coincidence that while going to erase that student’s F, Lawrence receives an ominous call from his doctor: or that the simple act of erasing a letter (letters, Hebrew, and numerology play a big role in this movie) is contrasted with the more literal potential erasing of a tornado barreling down upon a school playground. That last scene of the film: God’s wrath in the form of a tornado, and the American flag flapping weakly in the face of it, seems an odd and mysterious way to end the movie at first, but symbolically, couldn’t carry more weight. That tornado is Lawrence’s Old-Testament God, coming to pass judgment, and the even the new American freedoms tremble in the face of it.

Those freedoms are clearly exemplified in the central issue Lawrence must face: the fidelity of his wife, and how, as a man, he should care for his family (who does not seem to have much care for him). His wife not only tells him she wants a divorce – or a “get,” to use the traditional Hebrew, which many of Lawrence’s friends have humorous trouble contextualizing, at first – she adds insult to injury by asking Lawrence to befriend the man who is cuckolding him. The ensuing scenes of emasculation and Lawrence’s weakness in the face of it tip him dangerously close to a character with whom we have no sympathies. But Lawrence wins us back with his quest for guidance, framed as his attempt to visit three rabbis through the three major story acts: first the young rabbi, who carries no weight with him (but imparts perhaps the best advice Lawrence gets: that everything is perspective. Look at the parking lot, the rabbi says – and the parking lot, indeed, is where God finally appears). Then the older rabbi, whose stories about goyish teeth inscribed with Hebrew letters are just a tantalizing, seemingly meaningless mystery (but quite humorously told). Then finally – the oldest rabbi of all – the great Mishna – who won’t even see Lawrence, but who has a clear moral for his son: be a good boy. So it is that tradition is what we need, even if it has no real relevance any more, except to make us feel guilty. Perhaps the funniest moment of the movie – for me – comes when Lawrence’s son – a stoned bar-mitzvah boy – actually finds the wherewithal to read the Torah correctly. The Coen’s direct the scene as if the nachas generated by that simple act is a literal Big Bang: it seems to wash over the assembled audience and repair, in an instant, every transgression and everything that has gone wrong with Lawrence’s family (and every boy who’s gone through the bar mitzvah ritual will surely understand that joke).

The truth of these scenes, and the accuracy with which the Coens portray the Midwestern Jewish community, couldn’t be more heartfelt, and really, it’s a movie that many Midwesterners – Jewish, Catholic, or otherwise – will find familiar. Woody Allen’s brash New York Jews are fun, but they have nothing on the suppressed neuroses of my Midwestern roots, and this is really the first film I’ve ever seen that hits so close to home.

That the Coens are able to create such a rich texture of metaphor and culture – without much ever happening in the film (there’re a couple of untimely deaths, a few breasts, some minor crimes, a neighborly seduction, and an imagined murder) – gives this movie more of the feeling of really great literature, more than the early goofy Coen oeuvre. Which is to say, the movie may not be for everyone, but will bear fruit for the patient cinemaphile. Some people may be uncomfortable with the simple existential questions posed by that awesome and abrupt ending: has Lawrence really resolved things with his wife? With his job? With his health? And where exactly is that tornado headed, and for whom? These things seem to be left in God’s hands – or else, in the hands of random chance. Either way, like life itself, it is mystery.


  1. Very, very thorough study of this interesting film. Sounds like it has some personal meaning for you. Like your identifying the son as representing the Coens.


  2. The is a fine review of this deeply meaningful film. If one understands the Schrodinger theme, as you do, great wisdom barrels forth from this story.

  3. Wonderfully written, just one small error that I wanted to bring to your attention. The character's name is Larry Gopnik, not Grupnick.