Despite its nomination, the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man has little chance of winning the Best Picture Academy Award. And not simply because James Cameron’s Avatar is an unstoppable media force snowballing, like Titanic, towards an armload of gold. More so because it is possibly the most nihilistic film I’ve ever seen. Put otherwise, A Serious Man is one thwarted attempt after another to find meaning in a world designed precisely to stymie such pursuits. Events just pile up, often with terrible consequences, but the Coen Brothers are moving further and further from cause and effect storytelling.
In the Coens’ world, things, good and bad and otherwise, just happen. A Serious Man is the most unrelenting version yet of this vision of theirs. It’s often hilarious, but ultimately heavy. The jokes (if we can even call them that) come from the absurdity of feeling alone, or put upon in a merciless world. It’s the Book of Job by way of Kafka’s The Trial with a dash of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love” to lighten things up.
The film begins with Larry’s son not listening in Hebrew class. Well, he’s listening but not to his Hebrew teachers’ voice; he’s got that Airplane anthem blaring on his personal portable radio. Next we see Larry getting a physical, getting his ear checked out. The bulk of the film is one confrontation after another with Larry left out of any conversation. People, like his son or his wife, just talk at him. Even Larry’s rabbis don’t hear him; they offer little help, practically nothing
After we learn that Larry’s doctor wants to go over the test results again, the film ends with Jefferson Airplane song still blaring while a tornado approaches on the horizon. This mirror of the opening, moving between father and son, closes the film the way you’d close a circle. It suggests only one endgame, one desolate destination: we are at the mercy of the world, slaves to its cruelty, and then we die. And here’s where the Kafka comes in. As with Joseph K. in The Trial, Larry has no knowledge of the rules because the rules were always already set and everything and everybody conspires to obscure them from him, or offer answers that don’t help. Like Kafka’s story, A Serious Man is a film about the difficulty for anyone to understand let alone control the laws of the world. Again, things just happen.
So it’s easy to see why people grate at A Serious Man as only ever a bit of condescension about a boob milquetoast. Its torrent of misfortune, after all, is ceaseless. And the whole picture, as a circle, as some circuit of unending hurdles, points at a forgone conclusion: the grave. What’s more, in this limited life Larry leads that’s one tribulation after another, death is a relief. The terror isn’t that Larry could swing out of the doldrums and won’t have that opportunity but that this world, overrun by adversities (such as a tornado), continues — that his son, now technically a man in the eyes of his faith, will have untold woes ahead whether he likes it or not — and that if there is a meaning to find, it’s only ever within your head. Or maybe a pop song.
What makes A Serious Man so much more despairing than the Coens’ No Country For Old Men, which won Best Picture for who knows what reason, is that its mortal coil is wound tighter. Where No Country had the luxury of retirement, of throwing in the towel by choice, as Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Tom Bell does, A Serious Man ’s serious man, Larry, can only hope things end before they get worse, as they always seem to with him.