Laughing to Keep from Dying in the Suburbs: Black Comedy in Fargo and A Serious Man

© 2020, by M. Keith Booker

Given the tendency of the Coen Brothers to place their films in very specific geographic locations (or at least in alternate reality versions of those locations) it was perhaps inevitable that they would eventually set one of their films in the suburban Minnesota where they grew up. In fact, they returned to film in Minnesota relatively early in their careers with the production of their sixth film, Fargo (1996). They returned to Minnesota once again to make A Serious Man (2009), which is set in a world much more like the one in which the brothers actually spent their childhoods—and is even set in the time period during which they were living in Minnesota. In both films, though, it is clear that the Minnesota portrayed differs in important ways from the Minnesota of our reality. Fargo is set amid a criminal conspiracy that descends into deadly violence of a kind never encountered by the Coens in Minnesota. And A Serious Man, while involving events that would mostly, on the surface, be possible in the real world of suburban Minnesota, veers in the aggregate toward dark absurdist comedy.

Fargo: Take My Wife, Please

There is a moment in Fargo in which murderous thug Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) goes on a date (with a hired escort) to the Carlton Celebrity Room, where the couple dine and observe a live performance by well-known Puerto Rican singer José Feliciano. The film is set in 1987, but Feliciano had reached the height of his fame as a performer many years earlier with the release of such hits as “Light My Fire” (1968) and “Feliz Navidad” (1970). For many viewers of the film, Feliciano’s appearance (in which we hear him sing much of the song “Let’s Find Each Other Tonight,” which he had in fact recorded in 1983) is thus something of a nostalgia trip. In fact, it might be such a trip for the Coens themselves, given that they were young teens or pre-teens in Minnesota when he was at the height of his fame. Meanwhile, the appearance essentially as a lounge singer by a former A-list star might seem like something of a come-down. However, the real Carlton (located in Bloomington, Minnesota) was in fact a large (seating capacity roughly 2,200) and prestigious venue, which in its time hosted such acts as Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and Prince. Then again, the Carlton of the film is clearly not the real one, given that the real one was bulldozed in 1986 (to make way for the building of the Mall of America). Its appearance in a film set in 1987 is thus a classic Coen Brothers move and one that identifies the Minnesota of Fargo as an alternate reality location that resembles, but is not identical to, the Minnesota of the real world.

This sense of an uneasy boundary between reality and unreality is also furthered by the on-screen claim at the beginning of Fargo that it is based on real events that occurred in Minnesota in 1987; this claim might seem to suggest that this particular film might exist in a world more representative of the real one than the alternate reality constructions of the Coens’ earlier films. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Indeed, the fact that the film is not actually based on real events, despite this opening claim, only distances it further from reality. The Coens have acknowledged that they were attempting, in Fargo, to create a crime-infused world that is more interesting than our own world. In particular, while evading the question in numerous interviews, the Coens eventually admitted that the story is a complete fiction, manufactured because all of the true crime stories they researched seemed insufficiently compelling.[1] In short, Fargo may exist even more straightforwardly in an alternate reality than had the Coens’ earlier films, even as it takes us to the region where the Coens grew up and therefore to one they presumably know well enough to represent accurately.

That Fargo does not reside in a world that is simply a re-creation of reality can also be seen in the numerous gestures toward the mythical version of the Minnesota Northlands that is represented by the numerous shots we see of a statue of Paul Bunyan that complements the sign welcoming visitors to the town of Brainerd (a key location in the film), identifying the town as Bunyan’s “home.” This statue is itself a bit of movie magic: there are, in fact, numerous Paul Bunyan statues scattered across Minnesota, but this particular one is a fake, constructed specifically for use in the film (and located in northeastern North Dakota, nowhere near the real town of Brainerd, which sits in almost the exact center of Minnesota).[2]

Bunyan, incidentally, is not particularly associated with the town of Brainerd. He is, however, one of the most prominent figures in the entire phenomenon of American tall tales, a giant lumberjack generally accompanied by the equally gargantuan Babe the Blue Ox as he performs various astounding feats. There are many versions of Bunyan’s story, almost all of which involve superhuman exploits, and some of which employ Bunyan as a warning against the dehumanizing potential of capitalist modernization, as Bunyan’s vast strength and manual skill as a lumberjack are eventually outstripped by more efficient (but inhuman) machines, somewhat in the mold of the equally mythical John Henry. Ironically, though, Bunyan has also been widely employed as a marketing tool by the very capitalist system that his stories sometimes critique—as when a motel featured in the film takes its name from Bunyan’s sidekick, or when the city of Brainerd attempts to use his image to attract cash-paying visitors. Indeed, Bunyan first became widely known through his use in a series of advertising pamphlets for the Red River Lumber Company, beginning in 1916. Meanwhile, Bunyan’s stories were themselves largely manufactured for commercial publication, rather than evolving organically like genuine folklore. Thus, folklorist Richard M. Dorson regards Bunyan as a chief example of the phenomenon he refers to as “fakelore,” his stories having been hijacked by advertisers and fiction-writers until they bore little relation to their original roots. For Dorson, Bunyan is the “archetype” of the “mass-culture hero,” his image manufactured partly for profit and partly to promote a nationalistic vision of America’s greatness.[3] Bunyan, then, is the perfect figure to represent a film such as Fargo, with its patently false claims to authenticity. He also helps to reinforce the sense that this film takes place in a setting that both is and is not the Minnesota we all know.

Fargo calls attention to its far north setting immediately, beginning with an all-white screen that we quickly discover is a view of the northern winterscape, the snow-covered earth almost indistinguishable from the white sky. As slow, melancholy music (a bit reminiscent of the music of Miller’s Crossing)plays, a car appears, towing another car down a highway so covered with snow that it is virtually indistinguishable from the empty fields around it. The cars then arrive in Fargo, North Dakota, where Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is delivering the towed car to two thugs with whom he has agreed to meet in order to arrange the kidnapping of his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrüd); he hopes thereby to collect ransom money from her wealthy father, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell). The thugs, Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), are puzzled by the deal, but all Jerry will reveal is that he needs the money because he is in a bit of “trouble.” The arrangement made between Jerry and the thugs sets in motion a series of misadventures that plays out across North Dakota and (especially) Minnesota, as the Coens continue their mapping of an alternative America.  

At this point, at least in terms of plot, Fargo seems to be shaping up like a mildly interesting but ultimately run-of-the-mill thriller, though the artistically-presented opening snowscape and the introduction of these three terrific character actors so early on hold considerable promise that the film might contain at least a few special touches. And, of course, the film automatically holds promise for anyone who has been following the Coens’ earlier films, though most critics felt that the brothers reached a new level of achievement in this particular film. Fargo premiered at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Best Director award for Joel Coen, though of course Barton Fink had won even more accolades at the French festival. Perhaps more telling was the review of the film by Roger Ebert, who had been singularly unimpressed by the Coens’ first five films but who waxed poetic in his praise of Fargo. “To watch it,” he says, “is to experience steadily mounting delight, as you realize the filmmakers have taken enormous risks, gotten away with them and made a movie that is completely original, and as familiar as an old shoe.”[4] This same description, of course, applies perfectly well to the Coens’ earlier films as well, but the fact that it took Fargo to make such an astute observer as Ebert finally begin to realize what the Coens were up to tells us what an important film this truly is in the Coens’ career, which gained significant new momentum as a result of the film.

Fargo was nominated for seven Academy Awards (Including Best Picture) and ultimately won two, including a joint Best Original Screenplay Oscar for the brothers. These Oscar nominations represented the first to have been gained by a Coen Brothers film, and the screenwriting win is still (as of this writing in 2018) the only Oscar won by the brothers outside of the three they took home for No Country for Old Men (2007). Fargo also won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson, the seven-months-pregnant police chief of Brainerd. It is Marge who is primarily tasked with investigating the constellation of crimes associated with Jean Lundegaard’s kidnapping and its aftermath, and it is a task that she performs well, though nearly a million dollars in ransom money does go missing and many of the principals (including Jean) are killed in the process. But, of course, neither the crimes nor their investigation is the real point of Fargo, which is part ironic homage to the Minnesota milieu the Coens know so well and part character study—featuring the Coens’ usual array of amusing eccentrics, some of whom spill over into the grotesque, but at least one of whom (Marge) is portrayed with a degree of warmth and humanity not previously achieved in the Coens’ films.

As the film proceeds, the scene quickly shifts from Fargo to Minneapolis, as we see Jerry back there in his home, where the true patriarch is clearly not Jerry but his father-in-law, a domineering figure with whom the unimposing Jerry cannot compete in masculine power. Soon afterward, we see Jerry at work as the “executive sales manager” at a car dealership, which is (of course) owned by Gustafson, ensuring that Jerry remains in the shadow of his father-in-law there as well. Jerry is also up to no good here, having fraudulently extracted some $320,000 in loan money from GMAC (at that time the financing arm of General Motors) for cars that do not, in fact, exist. He also cheats his customers, maneuvering them into paying extra for accessories they neither need nor want. It is clear that Jerry, driven by the desire to compete with his far more successful father-in-law, has completely abandoned all sense of ethics—though his unscrupulous dealings are so incompetently executed that they tend simply to get him deeper and deeper into debt (and other forms of trouble). For her part, Jean seems a virtual non-entity, spending her time engaged in domestic tasks such as knitting and cooking, having little true communication with her husband or son, and remaining dominated by her powerful father—as she doubtless has been her entire life.

The dysfunction of the Lundegaard household should come as no surprise to viewers of the Coens’ earlier films. Scenes of domestic harmony and genuine love seem almost entirely absent from the brothers’ earlier work. (The occasional moments of connection between Hi and Ed in Raising Arizona merit the “almost,” but those moments are seriously flawed.) In Fargo, however, we actually see one family that is almost too ideal to be believable. The marriage between Marge and her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch) presents us with a genuine utopian enclave in which mutual love and understanding reign supreme, even as that enclave is surrounded by a world of violence and corruption. Indeed, it is the fallen world at large that makes the domestic space ruled by Marge and Norm (as they await the birth of their first child) all the more special. And it is indeed ruled by both, the two seeming very much to be equal partners. Meanwhile, one of the things that makes Fargo so special is that the idyllic marriage of the Gundersons is centrally informed by a gender reversal in which Norm occupies an essentially domestic space, while it is Marge who goes out into the cold (in this case, really cold), cruel world and deals with its nasty realities so that Norm won’t have to.

One of the charms of Fargo is that the folksy, gravid Marge seems so unsuited to take on ruthless (if inept) thugs like Showalter and Grimsrud but ultimately proves more than up to the task. Easy to underestimate (which is one of her key strengths), Marge turns out to be shrewd, courageous, and wise in the ways of the world. She is no super-sleuth, but she is a competent cop. We see her perhaps at her best when she interviews Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis), the hulking Native American parolee who works as an auto mechanic at Gustafson Motors. It was Proudfoot, with his own connections in the criminal world (Gaear is his “buddy”), who originally got Jerry in touch with the kidnappers, who had in turn called Proudfoot from the Blue Ox Motel, leaving a phone record that led Marge to the mechanic. The large, menacing, taciturn Proudfoot is this film’s central ethnic stereotype,[5] and he clearly hopes to intimidate the small, pregnant, unassuming white woman who comes to interview him. The chipper Marge holds her ground quite nicely, though, and it is Proudfoot who ends up being unsettled by the interview, though he also manages to avoid giving up any information about the kidnappers. One feels that Norm, on the other hand, would be completely lost in the criminal world into which Marge must venture in the course of her professional duties. Like Jerry, Norm lacks stereotypically macho attributes. Unlike Jerry, this does not mean that Norm is not a good husband who loves his wife; one suspects that he will be a good father as well. He need not be able to take on and defeat murderous thugs in order to play those roles. Someone, however, has to deal with the evils of the world, and there is no reason why that someone has to be male, just as there is no reason why someone who holds down the home front has to be female.

Norm, though, is never presented as effeminate. He’s just ordinary. He does, however, have his own talents as a maker of various forms of arts and crafts. For example, one part of the domestic subplot of the film involves his work on a painting of a mallard that he is preparing to enter into a competition to appear on a postage stamp. (He wins, but only for the 3-cent stamp, losing out to a local rival for the more prestigious 29-cent first-class stamp.) For her part, Marge is a loving and supportive wife who never shows any sign of loving or respecting Norm less because of his lack of traditional machismo. He functions very well in the domestic space of the home, and that’s fine with Marge. Jerry, meanwhile, is no better equipped than Norm to deal with the criminal underworld of the thugs with whom he attempts to do business; Jerry, though, is equally incompetent even in his own “natural” environments: the conventional world of business at the car dealership and the domestic space of marriage (as his willingness to use his own wife as a pawn in his kidnapping scheme amply illustrates).

If Norm is seen as embodying a “good” form of alternative masculinity and Jerry and Carl as occupying “bad” forms, all of the characters of Fargo who represent conventional forms of masculinity are represented negatively. The patriarchal Wade is hardly a likeable character, and his insensitive treatment of Jerry is merely one aspect of a pattern of behavior in which he is clearly more devoted to making money and exerting control than to any form of human relationship. It should thus come as no surprise that his first reaction to the news of the ransom demand is that they negotiate with the kidnappers for a lower ransom. Meanwhile, the film’s two paragons of masculine “strength”—Gaear and Shep—are both depicted as violent, abusive, and virtually incapable of verbal communication or of controlling their tempers. Perhaps the most enigmatic masculine character in the film is Mike Yanagita, Marge’s former high-school classmate, who arranges a meeting with Marge in order to hit on her and is then undeterred by the discovery of her pregnancy. For her part, Marge is sympathetic and kind when Mike tearfully explains his extreme loneliness in the wake of his wife’s death from leukemia, though of course she is uninterested in his overtures. Mike then comes off as significantly less sympathetic (to both Marge and the viewing audience) when we later learn that he was lying  about his wife’s death and has never been married. But this news is also mitigated by the revelation that he has “psychiatric problems” and is now living at home with his parents, rather than living the successful life as an engineer for Honeywell that he had described to Marge.

Mike’s narrative thus comes off as rather touching, instead of as the farcical tale it might have been in many of the Coens’ films. It is thus very much in keeping with the kinder and gentler feel of Fargo in general. Many aspects of the film, though, are vintage Coens, as when Jerry contrives to cheat both sides in the transaction surrounding Jean’s kidnapping: he tells Wade that the kidnappers have demanded a ransom of $1 million, while he tells the kidnappers that the ransom is only $80,000, which he plans to split with them 50-50, throwing in a brand-new Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera to sweeten the deal (and to help the criminals with their transportation during the crime). Then again, Jerry’s plan to outsmart everyone is seriously hampered by the fact that he isn’t very smart. Moreover, the plan is also hobbled by the fact that Wade, clearly a control freak (especially where his money and his daughter are concerned), immediately insists on interfering, despite Jerry’s pleas that he not get involved in the transaction, other than putting up the cash. But Wade demands that he be allowed to deliver the ransom money to Carl himself; he then comes armed to the transaction, which he refuses to carry out on Carl’s terms. For once, though, Wade is not in charge, and he ends up being shot dead by Carl—but not before he shoots Carl (who is fresh from a beating at the hands of Shep Proudfoot and who serves as this film’s punching-bag character) in the face, though the wound is relatively superficial.

Jerry’s problems are exacerbated by the fact that the criminals he hires to do his bidding aren’t any smarter than he is—on top of which they refuse actually to do his bidding. Instead, they insist on being paid the entire $80,000; when Carl discovers that Wade has brought $1 million instead, he buries $920,000 of it in the snow by the side of a road to avoid sharing it with Gaear. As is quite typical for a Coen Brothers film, numerous characters in this film are bent on double-crossing numerous other characters, but they then carry out these betrayals rather incompetently, contributing to the series of errors that ultimately leaves seven people dead, including Jean, Wade, and Carl—not to mention a state trooper, a parking lot attendant, and two witnesses, all four of whom accidentally run afoul of the two thugs.

All of this, of course, is quintessential Coens. One might also see Fargo as the film in which the Coens perfected the technique of mixing genres, moods, and tones that is perhaps the most distinctive feature of their work, in which odd mixtures of disparate materials tend to mesh brilliantly. But Fargo effects its mixtures of materials more quietly and subtly than is usually the case in a film by the Coens, who often effect such mixtures with gleeful violence and intrusiveness. Perhaps the most obvious mixture in Fargo is its unhesitating combination of crime and comedy, a feature that is typical of the Coens’ work as a whole—and one of the things that most clearly contributes to its air of taking place in alternate, out-of-kilter realities.

In one of the comic highlights of Fargo, a staple scene of the police procedural turns into an all-out comedy routine as Marge interviews the two hookers who had serviced Carl and Gaear at the Blue Ox. For one thing, the Minnesota accents of the two innocent-looking young women are among the funniest in the film. For another, their descriptions of the two criminals are classic. Carl’s hooker informs Marge that “he was funny lookin’—more’n most people, even.” Gaear’s, meanwhile, suggests that he looked like the Marlboro man, though she admits that she might have gotten that impression from the fact that he smoked so many Marlboros, “you know, like a subconscious type of thing.” They are, though, able to provide Marge with the information that the two men were headed for the Twin Cities, which at least provides her with a direction for her investigation.

The hooker’s identification of Gaear with the Marlboro man—an icon of conventional testosterone-soaked manliness somewhat in the mode of The Stranger in The Big Lebowski—points to the way in which this film (so ultimately dominated by its female lead) is centrally concerned with the topic of masculinity. With the exception of Norm (who is not conventionally masculine), men do not come off well in this film. Gaear—big, strong, and tight-lipped—does indeed show many of the traits that are conventionally coded as masculine, but he is also a psychopathic killer. Wade is successful in ways that have traditionally been endorsed by American society, but it is also clear that he can be ruthless, self-serving, and oblivious to the feelings of others, traits that have no doubt contributed to making Jerry feel less than a man and thus turn to crime as a form of compensation. Meanwhile, Jerry and Carl both try desperately to achieve conventional masculinity, but fail miserably in doing so, partly because they are in the respective shadows of Wade and Gaear, suggesting both that society’s stereotypical expectations of men might put unreasonable pressures on them and that those who do behave in these stereotypically masculine ways place toxic limitations on the development of others, including other men.

Jerry is a little man in every sense of the word, but he dreams of being a big man like his father-in-law. In this, Jerry is the successor to a long line of literary characters (Gogol’s mild-mannered copyist Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, from “The Overcoat,” might be the prototype) who are so extraordinary in their ordinariness as to be virtually unnoticeable by others. In Fargo, Jerry’s ill-fated kidnapping scheme is a bid not just to solve his (apparently considerable) money problems but also an attempt for once to be somebody special and to escape from the confinement of his day-to-day life.[6] That this plan collapses so miserably, leaving him in the very unmasculine position of screaming and squirming in his underwear as police arrest him in a seedy motel, is a testament to just how ill-suited he is for the role of criminal mastermind. Jerry is depicted as having suffered so much humiliation over the years that it is hard not to have a little sympathy for him; however, he is so pathetic in his lack of prowess and in his lack of concern about how his actions will affect others that it is impossible to have more than a little.

Perhaps the only character in Fargo more hapless than Jerry is the diminutive Carl. After all, one of the comic highlights of this very funny, very bloody film occurs when Marge discovers Gaear feeding Carl’s body into that wood chipper, just one sneaker-clad foot still sticking out. This scene, meanwhile, is the culmination of the ongoing squabble between the two criminals that runs—along with their bumbling incompetence as they go about their work—as a comic thread throughout the film. Much of the brilliance of Fargo, however, comes in its ability to make these criminals funny without ever really asking us to sympathize with them and without any attempt to suggest that they are anything but bloodthirsty killers. Fargo is a sort of buddy film in which the relationship between Carl and Gaear is a crucial element of the plot. One might compare here the relationship between Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), which is also something of a cross between a violent crime film and a humorous buddy film. But the criminal pair in Pulp Fiction are both clearly coded as conventionally masculine, while in Fargo the relationship between Gaear and Carl takes on an extra dimension because the first is coded as masculine, while the second has numerous feminine characteristics. As Adams astutely observes, Carl and Gaear function in the film as a sort of dysfunctional couple—which places them essentially as the negative counterpart of the positive couple constituted by Norm and Marge, both in terms of their moral positions and in terms of the largely hostile attitudes they hold toward each other. The two of them constantly bicker and argue over minutiae; at one point they even have sex together—though with the mediation of the two young (and enthusiastic) hookers they hire to join them in their room at the Blue Ox truck stop and motel in Brainerd (midway between Fargo and Minneapolis), on their way to kidnap Jean in Minneapolis. Then the two thugs relax together to watch some post-coital late-night TV, very much like so many other American couples, but with an added layer of irony.

Fargo Review | Movie - Empire

Especially given the way their association ends up, Gaear and Carl represent a seriously bad alternative version of the typical couple, just as Norm and Marge constitute an ideal alternative form of the typical couple. Both relationships, though, are very much in keeping with the alternate reality feel of this film as a whole. When the Coens returned to Minnesota with A Serious Man, that would create a world that is both more ordinary and more strange than the one in Fargo, a seemingly paradoxical feat that is quintessentially Coenesque.

A Serious Man: “Accept the Mystery”

A Serious Man is the Coen Brothers’ “Jewish” film. Something like a comic riff on the Book of Job, it includes scenes in Hebrew school, in a synagogue, and at a bar mitzvah. Almost all characters are Jewish, and several are rabbis. The opening scene is entirely in Yiddish, set in an Eastern European shtetl. The central (Jewish) character—physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg)—is not only something of a figure of Job, but his unending troubles make him something of a figure of the historical Jewish experience. Several major reviewers, however, questioned whether the film—in its gleeful torture of this character and in its presentation of so many Jewish characters as caricatures—might be a work of “Jewish self-loathing”: one on-line reviewer went so far as the call it “certainly the most anti-Jewish film Hollywood has ever produced.”[7] Bergan, on the other hand, praises the film as a landmark in Jewish American culture, as the moment “when Judaism came of age in American cinema.”[8] It is certainly the case that A Serious Man is anything but mean spirited in its treatment of Jews. It is also (despite the title) anything but entirely serious. A jokey notation that is displayed at the end of the credits captures the self-consciously lighthearted spirit of the film perfectly: “No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture.”

Perhaps no real Jews were harmed, but many of the Jewish characters take quite a buffeting, either in terms of the events that occur in the film or the way in which they are portrayed in the film. One of the many ironies of Fargo is that the dark, violent world of the filmis so very unlike the uneventful suburban Minnesota world in which the Coens grew up—though suggestions that decadence and violence lie beneath the placid surface of suburbia long have been a staple of American film, from Peyton Place (1957) to recent horror films such as Get Out (2017). However, as opposed to the events of these films (or of Fargo), the troubles encountered in A Serious Man are generally more mundane, though some of them border on the metaphysical.Indeed, the suburban world of A Serious Man has an air of mystery added to its ordinariness, helping to make it once again a sort of alternate reality version of the world in which it is ostensibly set.

A Serious Man begins on a seemingly philosophical note, with an on-screen quote attributed to the medieval French rabbi and Talmudic scholar, Rashi: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” This seems, at this point, to be a movie with a message, but we will eventually find that the film is filled with such tidbits, all of which have seemingly profound implications, but none of which ultimately seem to provide much in terms of practical advice on how to live our lives. The film then shifts directly into a cold (in more ways than one) open that is set, like the opening of Fargo, in a scene of snow. This snow, however, appears to be falling in a shtetl in Eastern Europe, perhaps in the nineteenth century. While we see glimpses of the snow, the scene is set mostly in a dark, claustrophobic interior, in muted tones, with a compressed 4:3 aspect ratio that contributes to the antique feel and to the claustrophobia. In the scene, a sort of folk tale that draws on Jewish mythology, a Jewish couple are visited by a supposedly deceased rabbi who might or might not be a dybbuk, a malevolent spirit risen from the dead.As a result, the couple might or might not be cursed. Nothing is ever quite certain in this film.

This scene, in any case, is not directly related to the rest of the film that occurs (in a more modern setting) after the opening credits—as the aspect ratio expands and the lighting level increases significantly. There is no indication of how the two parts of the film are related, though it certainly seems reasonable to assume that the couple in the prologue is cursed and that they are the ancestors of Gopnik, who has in turn somehow inherited the curse. In any case, Gopnik does certainly seem cursed in this film, but the uncertainties about the meaning of the prologue are never resolved. This film is one that produces lots of questions but very few answers, just as Gopnik—a smart, rational, educated man—is a seeker of certainty whose life gradually unravels into more and more uncertainty as the film proceeds. As Gopnik puts it, consulting a rabbi a bit more than halfway through the film, “Why does He [God] make us feel the questions if He’s not gonna give us any answers?”

One might ask the same about the Coens. In any case, not much goes right for Gopnik, though he (and we) never find the reason for his suffering. His constant mantra throughout the film—“I didn’t do anything”—is generally true, but that buys him no dispensation from life’s woes. Gopnik is clearly the central character of the film, but he seems responsible for almost none of the film’s major events, instead simply being knocked about by blind fate or by the actions of others. Seemingly powerless, he is apparently not even the “serious man” of the title, an appellation that is applied multiple times in the film to his condescending, touchy-feely rival Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), would-be second husband of Gopnik’s shrewish wife Judith (Sari Lennick). Indeed, when Gopnik at one point attempts to declare himself a serious man, he cannot even manage to speak the words without a disclaimer. Not only is Judith unfaithful (though in a chaste way), but his kids are unruly and disobedient, his daughter saving up for the nose job that she has been forbidden to have, and his son more interested in watching F Troop than sitting shiva after Ableman is killed in an auto accident. The only thing over which one might expect Gopnik to be able to exert a modicum of control—his professional life as a college physics professor—is in danger of spiraling out of control as well.

All of this, we will eventually learn, takes place in 1967 in a Minnesota suburb, which places it both geographically and temporally in the childhood of the Coens.[9] This temporal setting is indicated early on, as the opening credits appear (after the East European prologue) with rock music in the background, then morph into the opening scene of the main part of the film, which reveals that the music we have been hearing—Jefferson Airplane’s rock classic “Somebody to Love” (released April 1, 1967, on the album Surrealistic Pillow)—is actually playing on a transistor radio that is being secretly listened to via an earbud worn by Gopnik’s son Danny (Aaron Wolff) to entertain him while he ignores what is going on in his Hebrew school. Danny, we will later learn, is a fan, not just of rock music, but of marijuana. He is thus very much a child of his times in 1967, year of the “Summer of Love” and the year that “Somebody to Love” was ubiquitous among young Americans, as it is in the world of the film, popping up at key moments throughout. The prominence of this song helps to establish the setting of the film in 1967 and to remind us of how crucial that year was to the 1960s counterculture. But the well-known opening words to the song—heard several times in the film—are perfectly in keeping with the overall theme of the film: “When the truth is found to be lies / And all the joy within you dies, / Don’t you want somebody to love?”

At the same time as the opening scene in the Hebrew school, Gopnik is undergoing a thorough physical exam, the results of which he gets from his cigarette-smoking doctor, who offers Gopnik a smoke as well. Surprisingly, given the way the rest of the film goes, Gopnik is given (at this point) a clean bill of health. It’s all downhill from there, though. We next see him on the job in the classroom, teaching the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat. He seems competent, if uninspiring, as a teacher, though his students seem about as engaged as the bored students at Danny’s Hebrew school. After class, Gopnik is visited in his office by the kind of student all professors dread—a student who wants to complain that the grade he was given on the recent midterm exam was “unjust.” In this case, the student is Korean immigrant Clive Park (David Kang), whose argument is that the test was unfair to him because it depended too much on mathematics, at which he (going against Asian American stereotypes) is very poor. As a result, he failed the test and experienced dreadful “shame” (this time verifying a stereotypical Asian characteristic), though he understands the physics. Gopnik tries to explain that one can’t do the physics without the mathematics, but Clive is unmoved by the argument, opting instead to leave an envelope full of cash, clearly meant as a bribe.

Gopnik later attempts to give the money back to Clive, who refuses to take it or to acknowledge that it is his. Soon afterward, Clive’s father (played by Steve Park—who had been Mike Yanagita in Fargo) comes to Gopnik’s home to deliver a paradoxical threat to sue the professor both for accepting a bribe and for defaming his son by falsely accusing him of offering a bribe—unless he gives Clive a passing grade. Befuddled, Gopnik grapples with the logic of the threat. “It doesn’t make sense,” he tells Park, “Either he left the money, or he didn’t.” “Please,” responds Park, offering still another gloss on the events of the film as a whole, “Accept the mystery.”

The ability simultaneously to accept seemingly contradictory propositions is often associated with Eastern philosophy, so Park here would seem to be as much of an ethnic stereotype as the various stage Jews who populate the rest of the film. On the other hand, this sort of paradoxical thinking should not be foreign to Gopnik at all because it is also central to the quantum physics in which he appears to specialize in his work. “Schrödinger’s cat,” for example, is a well-known thought experiment from 1935, in which Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger conceived of a situation in which, due to the phenomenon known as “quantum superposition,” a cat must be considered simultaneously dead and alive under the conditions of the experiment. Schrödinger developed this experiment as a critique of the absurdity of certain interpretations of quantum mechanics, but it has become widely known as a serious illustration of some of the implications of quantum mechanics, and Gopnik himself appears to be teaching it in this way.

Clearly, Gopnik is unaccustomed to applying the principles of quantum physics to macro-scale events in his daily life—and rightfully so. He thus appears to make no connection whatsoever between the principles he teaches in class and the attitude being espoused by Mr. Park. However, within a few years of the 1967 setting of the movie, it would become quite commonplace to note parallels between the kind of thinking involved in quantum physics and that which informs Eastern mysticism. In 1975, for example, Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, which touts such parallels, became a popular bestseller; that book has gone through several successful editions since then. Similar parallels were also important (though less central) to Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters, which won a National Book Award in the category of science for 1979.

One could, in fact, read A Serious Man as an exploration of various sources of wisdom, from the glib soundbites of popular music, to traditional Jewish culture, to science, to Eastern mysticism, all of which seem to have certain things in common, including an acknowledgement that life always includes a certain amount of uncertainty—a key theme in the film. At one point in the film, Gopnik appropriately lectures on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, ending his presentation with the announcement that “it proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on,” perhaps spinning his interpretation to reflect the circumstances of his private life. As his students hastily depart the lecture hall when the bell rings, he adds, “But even though you can’t figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the midterm.” When a physics professor lectures on this topic, it certainly has a different feel than when it is propounded by Freddie Riedenschneider in The Man Who Wasn’t There. One feels, for example, that Gopnik actually knows what he is talking about. On the other hand, it is also clear that Gopnik’s interpretation of the Uncertainty Principle is as much a gloss on his own life as on subatomic physics. Time and again in this film, he finds himself being held responsible for dealing with circumstances that are beyond his understanding or control. But his gloss on the Uncertainty Principle (and warning about the exam) can also be taken as the central message of the film: like it or not, we have to deal with what life throws at us, even if it isn’t fair and even if we don’t understand it. The film, however, has little or no advice on how to deal with life’s problems.

One of Gopnik’s biggest problems is that he is currently being considered for tenure at the suburban university where he teaches, so Clive’s disruption comes at an inopportune moment. This is especially the case because Gopnik seems to have few publications or other achievements to submit in support of his tenure case—but also because the tenure committee has been receiving anonymous (there are unverified hints that they might have come from Ableman) denigrating letters accusing Gopnik of being morally unfit. Every possible problems seems to be hitting Gopnik at once.

After the Heisenberg lecture, Gopnik appears to be visited (in what turns out to be a dream) in the lecture hall by Ableman’s ghost, who advises him not to rely so much on mathematics, which is, after all, merely “the art of the possible.” “I don’t think so,” replies Gopnik, haltingly, thinking hard. “The art of the possible, that’s … I can’t remember. Something else.” That even an educated man like Gopnik cannot identify Otto von Bismarck’s famous definition of politics might be taken as a subtle suggestion on the part of the Coens that politics is not the answer to Gopnik’s (or anyone’s) problems, a suggestion that would certainly be in keeping with the attitude toward politics that the Coens display throughout their career. Alternatively, this moment could be taken as an indication that scientists are not necessarily well educated in the general sense but (like rabbis) are learned only in a narrow, specialized field.

In any case, “Ableman” advises Gopnik that there is a simple solution to his problems: “See Marshak,” he says, referring to a local elderly rabbi of near legendary wisdom. But, of course, Gopnik has been trying to see the elusive Rabbi Marshak (or to find some other source of rabbinical wisdom) throughout most of the film. When Gopnik first learns of Judith’s demand for a divorce, he questions the fundamental meaning of the universe. “Everything,” he declares, “that I thought was one way turns out to be another.” The truth, in other words, has been found to be lies—but now he has no one to love. So he is advised to seek solace in the wisdom of the Jewish tradition; he thus goes to see Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner), the senior rabbi at his local synagogue (the film employs the same B’nai Emet Synagogue that the Coens attended as boys). Nachtner, however, is unavailable, so Gopnik speaks instead to the young Rabbi Scott, who offers him nothing but platitudes on “perspective.” Later, when Gopnik is finally able to see Nachtner, he gets nothing but a long and inconclusive story about a Jewish dentist who finds an ominous message engraved (in Hebrew) on the backs of the lower front teeth of a gentile. When Gopnik demands an explanation of what this story is supposed to mean in terms of his own predicament, Nachtner merely shrugs. In another of the film’s bits of capsulized wisdom, he simply states (in his own version of the Uncertainty Principle), “We can’t know everything.”

Nachtner’s story is accompanied throughout by Jimi Hendrix’s anti-war song “Machine Gun” playing on the soundtrack, which furthers the film’s project of interweaving contemporary rock culture with traditional Jewish wisdom. The inclusion of Hendrix (like Jefferson Airplane a key icon of the 1960s counterculture) also helps to establish the late-1960s setting of the film. The only problem is that “Machine Gun” was not recorded until 1970, making its inclusion anachronistic and providing a subtle reminder that, as one would expect by now of the Coens, A Serious Man is not set in a representation of the real Minnesota suburbs in which the brothers grew up, but is instead set in an alternate reality Minnesota composed of a loose collection of cultural memories, not all of them accurate.

One could, of course, argue that “Machine Gun” is not playing diegetically in the film, so that it need not have been recorded by 1967. Later, however, Gopnik is informed by the Columbia House Record Club, which hounds him for payment throughout the film, that his next regular selection will be Cosmo’s Factory, which was an album by Creedence Clearwater Revival, the band so beloved by Jeff Lebowski. This album, however, was also released in 1970, and so could not have been a record club selection in the real world of 1967. Such “errors” occur far too often (and too strategically) in the work of the Coens to be unintentional but instead seem intended to remind us of the fictionality of the film we are watching.

Gopnik never does manage to get an audience with Marshak, who is too generally busy contemplating the universe to offer practical advice to individuals. As the capstone to his bar mitzvah ceremony, however, Danny is brought in for an audience with the distinguished wise man. At this meeting, Marshak returns Danny’s transistor radio, which had been confiscated earlier in Hebrew school. Meanwhile, the doddering Marshak himself has apparently been listening to the radio because the only wisdom he has to impart involves quoting (or rather misquoting) the opening lines from “Somebody to Love”: “When the truth is found to be lies / And all the hope within you dies … then what?” Perhaps the substitution of “hope’ for “joy” shows the difference between Marshak’s Jewish tradition and the Airplane’s own worldview, or maybe the rabbi is trying to remember the song but fails. In any case, a bewildered and speechless Danny sits silently as the rabbi then attempts (not quite successfully) to name the members of Jefferson Airplane, something Danny himself could no doubt easily do. Marshak then tops off the meeting with the profound admonition that Danny should “be a good boy.”

This interview represents a convergence of ancient Jewish wisdom with modern popular culture that is gestured toward in The Big Lebowski when Walter identifies Moses and Sandy Koufax as the two greatest figures in the Jewish tradition. But this convergence emerges fully formed only in A Serious Man, though even here it is not clear what we should make of this motif. One could take a positive tack and suggest that this convergence suggests both the ongoing relevance of ancient Jewish wisdom in our modern secular world and the presence of genuine insights into the meaning of life even in the most seemingly trendy works of popular culture. After all, when Grace Slick suggests that, amid the uncertainties of life, love might be our only true refuge, she offers wisdom that might have come from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, even if she has replaced a love of God and of fellow humans with a suggestion that drug-fueled free sex might just be the cure for what ails us in the modern world.

More cynically, one could just as well see the convergence of ancient religious thought and modern secular thought in A Serious Man as suggesting that both are equally unable to provide us with genuinely useful guidance about how to live our daily lives.[10] Thus, while the events depicted in the film seem to bear out Job’s famous Old Testament declaration that “Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble,” it is not clear what we are supposed to do with this information. In any case, the indication that life is full of woe does little in either the film or the Bible to help us deal with those woes, other than providing company to misery by providing a “shit happens” reminder that trouble is universal.

Granted, such reminders are not totally without value, especially in helping us to deal with the small everyday problems that everyone encounters from time to time, though it is certainly the case that it is unusual to encounter as many of these problems as does Gopnik, whom many reviewers have seen as a modern figure of Job, while just as many have seen him as a modern figure of the schlemiel, from Yiddish lore. The schlemiel, though, is usually the bungling source of his own troubles, while Job generally has trouble thrust upon him, making the identification of Gopnik with Job more accurate than identifying him as a schlemiel. Indeed, as Bergan notes, if one wishes to classify Gopnik accordingto Yiddish folk traditions, he is more of a schlimazel—one who encounters misfortunes through no fault of his own.[11]

Much of the film consists largely of a nonstop sequence of ordinary problems of the sort we all encounter, making him a sort of Everyman figure as well—though popular stereotypes about intellectuals would suggest that Gopnik would be unable to handle these ordinary problems well, being too immersed in the intellectual problems of his abstract work to engage effectively with the real world. One of the more amusing threads that runs through the film concerns the way Gopnik is being hounded by Columbia House, a club he has never joined. Gopnik suspects the music fan Danny of being the culprit, which seems logical, though we never learn the true source of this particular problem. Danny, meanwhile, is constantly hounding Gopnik to go up on the roof to adjust the family antenna to alleviate another common household problem of the 1960s, poor television reception.

In one of those trips to the roof, Gopnik spies the neighbor, Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker), sunbathing nude inside her privacy fence next door. His obvious interest seems to foreshadow suburban hanky panky, no doubt leading to even more trouble. When Gopnik visits her later, offering to help out with any chores she might have as a house as part of his new project to “help others,” the film seems on the verge of descending into a satire of suburban infidelity, especially as Mrs. Samsky, a walking stereotype of the jaded and lonely housewife (her husband “travels”), seems quite receptive. We also know that sexual adventures, in the films of the Coens, often lead to dire results, but, in this case, Gopnik manages to avoid an entanglement (beyond smoking pot together on the couch) with Mrs. Samsky. On the other hand, his failure to respond to her obvious attempt at seduction (she hints that she likes to take advantage of the “new freedoms”) seems to owe less to the fact that he exercises good judgment (for once) and more to his own clumsiness and infelicity with such matters.

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Music (with Carter Burwell as the film’s music director) is probably less important in A Serious Man than in most Coen Brothers films, but the near-seduction scene between Gopnik and Mrs. Samsky involves some very dexterous (and funny) use of background music, in this case music from Surrealistic Pillow,which is playing in the Samsky household when Gopnik pays his visit. As Gopnik arrives, we hear “Today,” the fourth track on Surrealistic Pillow, which means that Mrs. Samsky would have almost certainly been listening to “Somebody to Love” (the second track) just a few moments earlier. “Today” continues to play as Mrs. Samsky, taking the lead, positions Gopnik on the couch and makes her reference to the new freedoms. As she turns to take out a reefer, we hear the lyrics of the song announce, “Today, everything you want / I swear it will all come true,” leading us to believe that a seduction scene is underway. The song then turns into a fervent declaration of love, but the scene descends into the mere friendly smoking of marijuana, which clearly makes Gopnik a bit nervous at first, though he soon seems quite mellow. As the album comes to an end, a clearly stoned Gopnik wonders whether all his problems might just be matters of perception after all, just as Rabbi Scott suggested.

The film’s musical thread continues soon afterward when Gopnik has a (rather unerotic) erotic dream about having sex with a bored Mrs. Samsky (who smokes a cigarette even during the sex act). “Somebody to Love” predictably plays during the erotic portion of the dream sequence (and is presumably part of the dream itself), though Gopnik’s tryst with Mrs. Samsky is quickly interrupted by the appearance of the now-deceased Ableman in the dream. “Nailing it down,” says Ableman, in a bit of double entendre, “so important.” Then we see a coffin closing and Gopnik jolts into consciousness.

Ultimately, Gopnik’s encounter with Mrs. Samsky only serves to further diminish his flagging sense of masculinity. His masculinity is also threatened in a different way by his encounters with his next-door neighbor on the other side, the gentile, gun-toting, deer-slaying neighbor Mr. Brandt (Peter Breitmayer), who seems very much the type who might these days be a member of a right-wing militia. The hyper-masculine über-goy Brandt clearly intimidates (and appalls) Gopnik in a general way, though Gopnik does not back down when Brandt initiates a dispute over their property line. Instead, he refers the matter to the law firm that is already handling his divorce case. And, it appears that he might, for once, win a battle. Gopnik seems on the verge of getting good news when he is told that Sol Schlutz (Michael Lerner), a senior partner in his divorce attorney’s firm, has discovered a nifty solution to Gopnik’s property-line dispute with his neighbor. Sol is about the announce the solution when he drops dead of a heart attack on the spot. Neither we nor Gopnik ever learn what the solution had been.

However cursed Gopnik seems in the film, there is at least one character who has it even worse—his brother Arthur. Arthur, much more of a schlemiel than his brother, has no family, no job, and no home—leading him to camp during the film on his brother’s couch. To make matters worse, he is plagued with a sebaceous cyst that he spends much of his time draining. Much of the rest of his time is constructing an elaborate “Mentaculus,” which he describes as a “probability map of the universe.” A combination of mathematics and mystical doodling, this Metaculus is meant to unlock the secrets of the universe and thus joins all of the other potential sources of wisdom in the film. However, while Arthur’s project might seem the least legitimate of such sources, it seems to work to some extent, apparently providing Arthur with the insights he needs to win big in a local card game (ominously run by “Italians”). The game, however, is illegal, getting Arthur into some minor trouble with the police. This trouble then becomes more serious when he is eventually arrested on charges of solicitation and sodomy, leading him to feel that his life is collapsing around him and that Larry is the fortunate brother. As his troubles mount, Arthur, in his underwear, sits weeping by the side of the pool at the local motel (the “Jolly Roger,” in another case of double entendre)where Larry took up residence after being booted out of the family home by Judith. Arthur then makes his own pronouncement on the meaning of life: “It’s all shit!” he proclaims to his brother, who stands by at a loss for anything helpful to say.

But the troubles of others tend to become troubles for Larry Gopnik as well. Just as he had been expected to pay for Sy Ableman’s funeral, so too is he nominated to pay Arthur’s legal bills, which might be considerable. Then, in a flurry of events that ends the film, Gopnik is first given a hint by his department chair that his candidacy for tenure is likely to be successful. Then we get a quick cut back to Hebrew school, where Danny (having retrieved his transistor radio) is listening to another cut from Surrealistic Pillow—this time “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds.” Apparently some things never change (or perhaps he took his meeting with Marshak as an official endorsement of Jefferson Airplane). Then we are back to Gopnik’s office, where Gopnik receives a bill for $3000 for a retainer for top notch criminal defense attorney Ronald Meshbesher[12] to defend Arnold. Realizing he’s going to need the money, Gopnik decides to compromise his principles in favor of his dysfunctional brother’s needs and reluctantly changes Clive’s “F” to a “C-” so he can keep the bribe. Then, as if in retribution for this decision, Gopnik immediately gets a call from his doctor from the beginning of the film telling him that he needs to speak with him in person immediately because he has now spotted something on Gopnik’s X-rays that he prefers not to discuss over the phone. Ominously, he has cleared his schedule to be able to speak with Gopnik. Outside, an apocalyptic-looking tornado approaches at this very moment; “Somebody to Love” again begins to play on the soundtrack; and the screen cuts to black, followed by the end credits, perhaps (in this case) end-of-the-world credits.

Midway through the credits, however, the music switches to a song we also heard earlier on the soundtrack, “Dem Milners Trern” (“The Miller’s Tears”), a deeply sorrowful Yiddish lament about the sufferings of Jews driven into exile by the Czarist pogroms conducted in early twentieth-century Russia. The end credits, then, perform one last juxtaposition of modern American pop culture with more traditional Jewish culture, though in this case the effect is to emphasize the contrast between the two as methods for dealing with the troubles of the world. American pop culture of the kind represented by “Somebody to Love” is designed to provide entertainment and enjoyment and to encourage its audience to seek pleasure wherever they can as a respite from life’s troubles. Superficial and escapist, this sort of culture might provide some momentary relief but does little to deal with the underlying conditions that caused the troubles to begin with. The Jewish culture represented by “Dem Milners Trern,” on the other hand, deals with misery head-on, as it were, somewhat along the lines of American blues music, but with a more somber tone.

A Serious Man, incidentally, does not seem to favor one of these strategies over the other. Neither sex nor religion tends to bring much solace in the cinematic world of the Coens, and this film is no exception. Instead of real advice, all the film has to offer is platitudes such as “accept the mystery,” “we can’t know everything,” and allied examples such as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The film itself, though, is oddly comforting, partly because Gopnik is likely to be worse off than any of us and partly because some of us might just take a bit of pleasure in the fact that an unusual little jewel of a film such as A Serious Man even exists in the first place.

Notes


[1] Adams attributes this confession to an interview between the Coens and Elvis Mitchell for the Independent Film Channel in 2000 (Adams, p. 103).

[2] Much of Fargo was shot in the northernmost reaches of Minnesota and North Dakota, well to the north of the putative settings. Unusually warm weather meant that the snow cover further south was insufficient to achieve the effect desired in the film.

[3] Dorson, p. 200.

[4] Ebert, “Fargo.

[5] Other stereotypes in this film include Gustafson’s chief financial advisor, Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg), who is presumably Jewish, based on his name (though the film makes nothing of his Jewishness) and the Asian American Mike Yanagita (Mike Park), who claims, at least, to work as an engineer. Asians (including a character played by Park) and (especially) Jews would play a much bigger role in A Serious Man.

[6] See Rowell for a discussion of the ways in which the cinematography emphasizes Jerry’s sense of entrapment and imprisonment by frequently showing him in scenes in which he is shot inside a frame (such as a doorway) or in his small, confining office, the window of which is covered by vertical blinds opened to look like bars. As she notes, “The screen compositions consistently show him cornered by his situations” (p. 185).

[7] See E. Michael Jones.

[8] Bergan, p. 264.

[9] Joel Coen turned thirteen in 1967, which would make it the year of his bar mitzvah, a big moment in the life on any Jewish boy, including atheist ones like the Coens.

[10] Bergan suggests that the ineffectuality of the rabbis in this film “could be seen as the Coens’ revenge after growing up ‘detesting Hebrew school and their boring rabbis’” (p. 262).

[11] Bergan, p. 265.

[12] The joke here is that “Ronald Meshbesher” is the actual name of a prominent, long-time Minnesota criminal-defense attorney, though he would have still been relatively early in his career in 1967.