A “shaggy dog story” is a long, involved story, the plot of which doesn’t matter and which is only intended to be the delivery device for a punchline, usually a bad one. “Watch for Falling Rock.” “I don’t know, but his face rings a bell.” “Silly Rabbi, kicks are for Trids!” And so forth. “The Aristocrats” may well be the best-known shaggy dog story in comedy. I once told one for about half an hour to my English class (we had a substitute) and managed to time the punchline so that my class was still sitting stunned when the bell rang, and I made my escape. I have long been of the opinion that certain movies are basically shaggy dog stories. My prime example is Some Like It Hot, but I would argue that, yes, A Serious Man is a shaggy dog story. Or perhaps two of them twined around one another in an existential Jewish sort of way.
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor living in an unnamed Midwestern city that is definitely Minneapolis. He is married to Judith (Sari Lennick) and thinks his life is going pretty well. His son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), is studying for his bar mitzvah. Only Danny gets his transistor radio confiscated with the twenty bucks he owes a bully/pot dealer in his Hebrew school class in it. Larry has a couple of problems. His older brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), is living on their couch. He’s up for tenure. A student, Clive Park (David Kang), is trying to bribe him for a passing grade. Oh, and Judith is leaving him for Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Couple other things.
Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of claims that the Coens are unemotional. Uninvolved. Unattached to their characters. However, I feel that they have a great deal of sympathy for Larry Gopnik. Yes, I think of him as kind of the Job of Minnesota. It does, I admit, seem as though the Coens kept coming up with worse and worse things to pile on him, and they gave him no sympathetic ears. He sees sad little junior rabbi (Simon Helberg). He sees more experienced but completely unhelpful rabbi (George Wyner). He is not permitted to see possibly wise but possibly senile rabbi (Alan Mandell). He ends up weeping all over his attorney (Adam Arkin), because he pretty much doesn’t have anyone else. However, I still think it’s obvious that the Coens like him a lot better than pretty well any other character in the movie.
When this movie was made, probably the most famous people in it were Richard Kind and Adam Arkin, and let’s face it, neither of them are exactly A-list stars. Since then, Michael Stuhlbarg has done quite well for himself. He cast a Serious Vote in Lincoln (I can’t help it; that’s the thought I had in the theatre), and he’s Arnold Rothstein on Boardwalk Empire, though the character died in the time jump to season five. Don’t know how they’re going to handle that; I don’t have HBO. This despite the fact that the movie didn’t do too well, generally being considered too Jewish.
The important issue, I think, is that Larry actually is a serious man and Sy Ableman is not. Larry tries to care for his family, though his family pretty well rejects it. Danny seems to see him as someone to scam and fix the TV antenna. Arthur gets in all kinds of trouble and doesn’t take responsibility for himself, to the point that some people blame him for the failings of Larry’s marriage. But the marriage is failing because Judith is selfish. She doesn’t seem to see Larry as a person at all. She is just not aware of him, and she’d rather go with a guy who seems pretty sleazy to me.
2009 was a pretty good year for movies, all things considered. Later this month, I’m going to look back on Where the Wild Things Are, and we’ve got people scheduled for one or two others. This lost both of its nominations to The Hurt Locker, and I won’t argue the point. (I would have if it had been Avatar.) There are a fair number of fine movies from 2009, movies I really enjoyed. But I think this might have been the first one I owned.