It’s an unlikely turning point, this scene in The Man Who Wasn’t There, one of the richest, most underappreciated of the Coen Brothers’ films. Tony Shalhoub’s Freddy Riedenschneider, a lawyer in love with mystifying elocution, dazzling ideas, and the art of distraction—in other words, theatre—presents his client, on trail for murder, with a philosophical argument he believes will form the lynchpin in their case: a thing changes when you look at it. Sunlight beams down upon his upturned face as he savours his discovery of paradox. His presentation finished, he then abruptly leaves the room.
I’ve been trying to figure out why I keep thinking of The Man Who Wasn’t There as the natural companion to A Serious Man, the Coens’ new film, opening today in Toronto, about one Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, wonderful), a Jewish physics teacher and family man swept up in spiritual crisis 1967 Minneapolis. Sure, both feature a largely passive protagonist caught up in a torrent of troubles. “But I didn’t do anything!” is Larry’s recurring plea. Both are period pieces about middleclass people with unsatisfying marriages living in the suburbs. But more integrally these are the films that come closest to expressing the Coens’ particular take on the human condition, life as something perpetually mysterious and maddeningly unmoored, where chaos is never vanquished but merely ebbs and flows, where parallels and ostensible signs can’t be dependably mined for meaning. “Please, accept the mystery!” a character asks Larry. Dreams deceive dreamers because they seem so real in the moment. Voices echo from one scene into another like yelps into the void. There’s a moment, less flamboyant than Riedenschneider’s but still pretty fun, where Larry tries to explain Schrödinger’s cat to an auditorium full of students, behind him a blackboard of comically titanic proportions covered in a labyrinthine mural of equation almost no one could possibly understand. You can never be certain if the cat’s alive or dead, Larry tells his class, but you still have to explain it on the midterm.
A Serious Man is also like The Man Who Wasn’t There in that, no matter what the rigorously irreverent Coens themselves might say—some general advice: never trust the artist to interpret the work—it reveals the filmmakers at their most discreetly compassionate. The escalating woes of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) may be rife with black comedy and caricature, but his struggle feels genuine. He’s condescended to by several supporting characters, not by the authors. Maybe—and this is a strict maybe—this is because it’s their most autobiographical work. The setting is their hometown; Larry’s occupation is the same as that of the Coens’ father; Larry’s son Danny (Aaron Wolff, deadpan and very funny), about to bar mitzvah, is roughly the same age the Coens would have been at the time, and we can only presume his pot-addled, utterly detached participation in the rituals of his Jewish community mirrors the Coens’. Maybe it also reflects something of Ethan Coen’s undergraduate studies in philosophy—his thesis was on Wittgenstein—but no matter how circular, inconclusive or just plain baffling Larry’s soliciting of advice from a series of rabbis might be, we’re not made to feel that he’s ridiculous or pitiful for having searched, any more than it might be ridiculous or pitiful for him to seek comfort in the desperate housewife next door (Amy Landecker, blearily sexy), who he first spies sunbathing from his roof one sunny afternoon. He fiddles with the antenna as Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Coming Back To Me’ seems to suddenly drift across the airwaves, lending tenderness to this scene of accidental voyeurism.
Characteristic Coen humour, often verging on non sequitur, abounds. There are jokes about incessant cyst draining or the inexplicable unseemliness of a bar called the North Dakota. There are instances of culture clash that toy with stereotype, such as Larry’s struggle to reason with a Korean student who presumes bribery to be acceptable practice in American schools. The cast, superb and devoid of name talent, speaks to the Coens’ impeccable eye for faces, not to mention ankles, necks, and the hairiest ears I’ve ever seen. Larry’s wife (Sari Lennick), wound so tight she looks like her head’s about to explode any second, seems to be leaving him for Allen Ginsberg (Fred Melamed, reassuring, and creepy). Bodies wordlessly convey repression, especially that of Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind, endearingly childish), whose posture renders him a peeled hard-boiled egg with flippers. So the Coen carnival show is in full effect, but it strikes me as a carnival of the community centre, oddly affectionate, deeply recognizable—to Jews and goys alike—and brimming with sly observations on how familiarity can suddenly become terrifying and strange when the balance of life alarmingly slips over. Larry’s troubles don’t really abate. Indeed, the film ends with fresh threats looming on the horizon. This cliffhanger is a legitimate finale however. There is resolution, even if it urges us to accept uncertainty as life’s sole certainty.
One last thought. It concerns coincidence, a big theme in A Serious Man. There was one other excellent American film released this year that also dealt with a major crisis in the life of a man living in a Jewish community. It was called Two Lovers, it starred Joaquin Phoenix, and is it just me or, from certain angles at least, and especially when smiling, do Phoenix and Stuhlbarg not look very alike? Is Hashem trying to tell us something? Talk amongst yourselves.