Watching Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film reminded me of Franz Kafka’s story “Before the Law,” which appears in The Trial. A man travels to the door of the Law and asks for admittance, but a guard bars his way. After years of fruitless waiting, hoping and scheming outside the door, the man, on the brink of death, asks the guard why he’s never seen anyone else — doesn’t everyone seek the Law? “This door was made for you alone,” the guard replies. “Now I’m going to shut it.”
Now, you can read this as a weighty parable about the mystery and cruelty of God and the universe, or you can read it as a joke about the mystery and cruelty of God and the universe. The brothers Coen clearly get the humor. In A Serious Man, their unclassifiable comedy about existential crisis from a Jewish perspective, they stage their own version of “Before the Law.”
It’s 1967, and Midwestern physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is experiencing a series of personal problems that merit comparison to the trials of Job. The first two rabbis he consults don’t offer him any help, so he storms the office of venerable Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell), who never sees anyone. The door stands open, but with a formidable guard — an iron-faced, bepearled secretary (Claudia Wilkens). “The rabbi’s busy,” she proclaims. “He doesn’t look busy,” Larry protests. “He’s thinking,” she replies.
Now, most American movie protagonists would force their way into that room. Kevin Spacey in American Beauty would have done it. But Larry Gopnik is made of meeker stuff. He isn’t even the “serious man” of the title: That phrase is first used to describe the unctuous Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), with whom Larry’s wife (Sari Lennick) has fallen madly in love. When she drops this news on Larry, his face crumples: It’s a bolt from the blue. The same could be said of Larry’s other misfortunes: the surly pothead son (Aaron Wolff); the whiny daughter (Jessica McManus); the misfit brother (Richard Kind) camping on his couch; and the student (David Kang) who tries to bribe him for a passing grade.
Soon Larry is living Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle as well as teaching it: “None of this may make sense to you,” he tells his students, “but you’ll still be tested on it on the midterm.”
That’s pretty much the message of The Book of Job, and the more you look at A Serious Man, the more parallels appear. The thing is, it’s still a comedy. Where the Coens’ No Country for Old Men got our attention with bursts of physical violence, A Serious Man does it with the low-key, weirdly hilarious violence of everyday conversation. The film doesn’t have a ton of dialogue, but every bit counts, because it’s the rhythms — the fervent cussing of the teenagers; the mellifluous assurances that people like Ableman use to bullshit people like Larry into submission — that make it funny. As in Fargo, nothing here is broad parody, but it’s all just absurd enough to underscore the absurdity of life, the futility of our hopes and schemes.
If the film offers any hope alongside its cosmic irony, it’s because Larry Gopnik doesn’t get irony. Stuhlbarg has the jumpy eyes of a small, scared animal with a will to survive. The professor is still sure there’s an order to the universe, a right and a wrong choice. And, like Kafka’s man who died waiting for the Law to be handed down, he’s damned if anyone’s going to tell him there isn’t.