Somewhere midway through A Serious Man, a rabbi recounts the tale of a dentist searching for answers from God through teeth. The story wanders aimlessly, occasionally interrupted by our protagonist’s questioning whether any of this is important, before ending anticlimactically with his continued search in other patients’ mouths. When asked what happened to the dentist, the rabbi simply replies “Does it matter?”. This is the question that loomed in my mind while walking away from the national premiere of A Serious Man last Thursday night—does the fate of the film’s characters matter? And if not, what does this say about the film’s quality?
A Serious Man follows the life of Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor whose professional and private lives are dwindling. His tenure candidacy is imperiled by anonymous letters denigrating his work, his wife wants a “gat” (divorce), his children are hellish annoyances, and he’s continually haunted by the Columbia Records Club and a Korean student attempting to blackmail passing grades. None of these threads work towards a logical conclusion, however, each instead constructing the larger story that is Larry’s life. Character development has always been the Coens’ strong suit, and this film is nothing but—you get to know Larry, from his sexual fantasies to his marital nightmares. You get to know him so well that the quick narrative turn near the end may feel jarring, although entirely earned.
Michael Stuhlbarg’s subtle performance lends his character a believability that could easily be lost in the balancing act of portraying a bellweather like Larry Gopnik; the temptation of instilling his sympathies with an ironic sarcasm would’ve swayed most actors, especially later in the film, yet Michael remains controlled and sublime. The rest of the cast carries their quirky side characters with gusto, whether it be Sari Lennick’s emotionally unstable Judith Gopnik or Richard Kind’s quiet but tortured Uncle Arthur, forming an appropriately absurd background for the story.
The score is mostly forgettable with the exception of Jefferson Airplane’s “Don’t You Want Somebody to Love”, the single uniting element of the film. It’s sparse but appropriate–the psychedelic crescendo instilling scenes of mundane life with a foreboding sense of stress. It’s one of those rare instances where cinema provides a nearly mutual influence on its soundtrack–every viewer of A Serious Man will unquestionably develop a concrete (and chilling) image association with the song.
Audiences will walk away from this much as they did 2007’s No Country for Old Men: utterly divided on the ending. In an age of passionate fanaticism and spoiler warnings, it begs the question of what’s more important—the bulletpointed events of a film or the ride that leads us there. It alters the tone while leaving room for speculation, yet feels an appropriate punctuation to Larry’s story. More alienating is the beginning, which tells the completely unrelated tale of a “Dybbuk”, or Jewish demon, traveling the old-world European hillsides. Never integrated into the main narrative, this segment will confuse many, be forgotten by the rest, and is the only real blemish on an otherwise great film. Though its conclusion will infuriate some, A Serious Man represents an extension of the non-traditionality glimpsed in No Country into the Coens’ humor; it heralds a new benchmark for their comedic career and proves a promising contender for the upcoming awards season.