I’ve written and scrapped and written and scrapped a half-dozen reviews of this film. I’ve considered that maybe I need to go back and watch it again, and only then will I be able to grasp it. I’ve been thinking about this thing all weekend, and I’ve come to the conclusion that while I can’t wait to see it again, in terms of writing a review, I have what I have, and that’ll have to be good enough.
To TRULY discuss the film, I’d need to dive massively into spoilers, and nearly all of the review would in some way deal with the ending. But I’m a good person, I won’t do that. I will say that the film often mentions the idea of parables, the idea that you can tell a story about someone you’ve never met, whose name you don’t even know, who lives through an exceptional circumstance that he learns a great deal from, but this concept can sometimes be difficult to apply to your own life. There’s a whole scene in the film that says just that.
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor who, early in the film, uses the parable of Schrödinger’s cat to explain concepts to his students, but he admits that he has no idea what the story of the cat means or really its exact application. It’s an offhand remark, but it goes a long way towards what the Coens are getting at.
I will also say that the Coens have, in my opinion, never made a completely serious film. As much as I despise the age of irony we’ve found ourselves in, the Coens use irony to make their work lighter and deeper at the same time. The films remain essentially unknowable; they keep a distance from their characters that many have tried to label as contempt. Whether or not that’s true (I don’t think it really matters), the result has been a body of work that can be seen many different ways, but is ALWAYS entertaining.
A Serious Man is, in my estimation, their best work since Barton Fink, because it is totally serious and completely dedicated to not giving away anything, remaining totally entertaining and involving while doing so, and perhaps even adding up to their greatest joke yet. Fargo, their 1996 film, opens with a statement that the film is based on a true story, a claim they maintained for some time after its release before admitting that they just tacked it on there, almost on a whim. I’ve always thought this artistic flourish, and the way they’ve explained/dismissed it says more about their body of work than anything else. Whatever they present us is complete fiction, and any application to the real world you try to give it will come up empty. And, somewhere, Joel and Ethan Coen are laughing.
Midway through the film, things are looking pretty bleak, and Larry explains the uncertainty principle to a class full of college kids. According to Wikipedia (I am not a quantum physicist, for what it’s worth), the uncertainty principle “states that certain pairs of physical properties, like position and momentum, cannot both be known to arbitrary precision. That is, the more precisely one property is known, the less precisely the other can be known…[it] is not a statement about the limitations of a researcher's ability to measure particular quantities of a system, it is a statement about the nature of the system itself as described by the equations of quantum mechanics.”
What does it all mean? Why does it open with a prologue that has no direct bearing on the rest of the film? You might as well ask what was in Barton’s box. Or where Chigurh went after Ed Tom busted into the motel room. In discussing Barton Fink, Ethan said, “What isn't crystal clear isn't intended to become crystal clear, and it's fine to leave it at that,” to which Joel followed up, “The question is: Where would it get you if something that's a little bit ambiguous in the movie is made clear? It doesn't get you anywhere.”