Is there something profound out there, or is it just fate? One has to ask oneself if the latest offering from the Coen Brothers is simply telling a story, or getting at something deeper. It is certainly an exploration of Jewishness in modern (1967) America in the sort of Midwestern community in which Joel and Ethan Coen were brought up. In interviews, they spoken about their upbringing, but have refused to speculate on the questions the film might raise. But the movie itself – is it full of clues, or does it simply tease?
Before the opening credits roll, we are in a Polish Shtetl. A man is helped at the roadside by an elderly rabbi, so invites him home. But his wife claims she had heard that the rabbi had died three years ago and the stranger was in fact a dybbuk. Is she correct? We never find out for sure, and neither is this strange tale integrated into the film as a whole. But a doubt remains that, generations on, the descendents of the man are in some way paying for the sins of their fathers.
Larry Gopnik (a magnificent Michael Stuhlbarg) is a Jewish physics professor whose life is starting to fall apart. His wife (Sari Lennick) wants to divorce him for the odious Sy Ablemann (Fred Melamud), his son is into pot, his daughter is into hair, his brother lazing round the house draining his cyst. He is being harassed by his redneck neighbour, bribed by a college student, chased by the record company, and all for no reason – Larry is honest, trusting, decent. It’s as if God is testing him, like he did the honest Job.
Larry turns for support and answers to three rabbis. But the first offers him platitudes, the second a meandering, pointless (and very funny) story about a Jewish dentist who has a goy patient with “Help Me” written in Hebrew characters on the inside of his teeth. The third refuses to see him.
Perhaps the clue lies in Larry’s job – he is teaching about Schrödinger’s Cat, which could exist / not exist in a box simultaneously. A Schrödinger event appears to occur when Larry and another character are both in car crashes at the same time. Larry survives, the other character is killed. Larry’s brother subverts chance by using his numeric skills for card-counting, but fate rounds on him and he is arrested. Towards the end of the film, Larry for the first time when faced with a choice takes the immoral option. As he does, the telephone rings with bad news. Coincidence? Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind which is enveloping the Midwestern community, the storm from which God spoke to Job?
This is a slow-moving, thoughtful film whose humour is whimsical rather than funny, exquisitely constructed and beautifully shot by long-time Coen-collaborator Roger Deakins. It won’t appeal to the multiplex audiences, but will intrigue those who relish intelligent filmmaking that is not afraid to leave all its loose threads hanging.