Monday, December 28, 2009
As Larry looks for answers to this confusion about this disintegrating state of affairs, he is met with even more confusion. Casting about him for help, Gopnik seeks advice from his spiritual leaders, but in the end he catches nothing. If he is not baffled by the torment of his unemployed brother (Richard Kind), who is either brilliant or mad, a burden to Larry who carries this dual cross around like a massive boil on his shoulders, he is listening to stories and advice from three rabbis, leaders in his community who provide little comfort or insight into life's deeper meanings because, much like the film's brilliant prologue, their open-ended tales are nearly impossible to parse. Are they The Chosen people because there is an eternal curse upon them? As the words to Somebody to Love remind us repetitively, "When the truth is found to be lies, and all hope within you dies"...then what? Does the universe have it out for the Jews? "What have I done?" moans Larry. You don't have to do a thing, Larry. You just have to be.
Paralleling the father's story is that of the son, Danny (Aaron Wolff) a boy who is attempting to find his own place in this alien world as a near-13 year old Jewish boy in the mid-west who listens to rock and roll, smokes weed and watches F-Troop on TV while simultaneously attending Hebrew school in preparation for his bar mitzvah. Like his father, Danny feels out of place. He struggles with his sense of alienation like a junior Hamlet: Things feel out of joint. Yet, the scope of Danny's search is considerably more limited, focusing primarily upon his attempts to retrieve his transistor radio from the clutches of Rabbi Marshak. Still, like his father, Danny lives in a hostile world, where Job-like he endures the blows and buffets of misfortune.
The film's punchline, which emerges after Danny gains admittance into his Jewish community through the bar mitzvah ceremony, and he is able to gain remittance of his transistor radio, while Gopnik begins to actually believe that there is some hope, as he provides some succor to his brother and his quest for tenure appears to be secured, is the Coens final reminder that the universe is a wild and unpredictable place which appears to seek to balance.
A Serious Man raises a lot of questions about how we should approach life or search for meaning in turbulent times. The equation of the film's setting with our own times is worth examining, as the Coens develop connections between the stories of the father and son in the same way that they want us to identify parallels between life in the late 60s with the uncertainty of our contemporary lives. Whether the film's final shot is a cynical desparate scream into the abyss, or, like so much of the instruction that has preceded it, yet another uncontrollable, open-ended development, is an interpretation left entirely up to the audience. As it should be.
In closing, here is the film's trailer.