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A Serious Man

Something serious is going on here…

The movie opens with Rashi’s comment on Deuteronomy 18:13: You shall be wholehearted with the Lord your God. Rashi explains that we must “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” We see a cramped Yiddish-speaking household somewhere in Eastern Europe 100 years ago. The housewife (Yelena Shmulenson) is preparing dinner as her husband (Allen L. Richman) stumbles in from the cold with news that he just encountered an old friend.  She tells him this particular man has been dead for months.  Before he can react the mysterious man (Fyvush Finkel) knocks and enters.  She quickly sizes him up as a dybbuk and, to prove her point, stabs him through the heart with an ice pick.  He mumbles that he is not feeling so good now and calmly walks out the door.  Her husband is confused and terrified she may have killed him.  She exclaims confidently, “Good riddance to evil!”

Larry(Michael Stuhlbarg) and Judith(Sari Wagner) at the Bar Mitzvah from “A Serious Man” Courtesy Focus Films
Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Judith (Sari Wagner) at the Bar Mitzvah, from A Serious Man, courtesy Focus Films

Shift to a 1967 bar mitzvah class in Minneapolis, Minnesota where Danny, (Aaron Wolff) son of the movie’s hero, is clandestinely listening to the Jefferson Airplane song of Got Somebody to Love; “When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies.”  With these incongruous and puzzling images the Coen Brothers newest feature begins its contemporary retelling of the Book of Job filtered through the lens of midcentury American Jewish life.  After 105 hilariously serious Jewish minutes the movie ends with the rest of the song; “you better find somebody to love.”  Of course here, as with the Book of Job, even love may not be enough to help you make sense of all that has transpired.  But it has been a thrilling and challenging ride nonetheless.

Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) About to Lose Tenure from “A Serious Man” Courtesy Focus Films
Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) about to lose tenure, from A Serious Man, courtesy Focus Films

A Serious Man presents us with the classic Job-like dilemma; Larry Gopnik’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) life is falling apart for no apparent reason.  His wife, Judith (Sari Wagner), announces that she is divorcing him to marry a family acquaintance, Sy (Fred Melamed); Larry’s eccentric brother, Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind) refuses to move out of the house; his carefully built career as a physics professor is threatened by anonymous accusations of moral turpitude; a Korean student tries to bribe him for a passing grade, his son is in trouble in Hebrew school and his daughter has been stealing money from his wallet for a nose job.  Quite out of the blue a new female neighbor decides to tempt him with sins of the flesh.  To make matters worse after a recent examination his doctor fears the onset of a serious disease.  As each of these afflictions materialize Larry tries without success to understand what is going on.  “I haven’t done anything…” is his most frequent response.  All Larry wants to do is to figure out what God wants from him.  Logically he proceeds to consult the three rabbis of his congregation.  Step by step, in interview after interview he gets exactly nowhere.  The frustration and mounting desperation becomes close to unbearable, even as we see his predicament from the point of view of a scathing and hilarious send up of suburban middle-class Jewish norms and belief.  What of course is revealed, just as in the Book of Job, is the immeasurability of our lack of knowledge of God and His mysterious ways.

This is the ultimate coming of age movie for modern Jewry in which no one survives the passage.  Larry’s world is thoroughly American, a rational and progressive American Jew trying to navigate the norms of modernity, Jewishness and what seems to be an astounding run of bad luck. Not surprisingly many crucial themes surface and thankfully almost none are resolved.  Lets make a list:

There are 3 dybbuks discovered; the stranger we saw in the prologue, Sy who woos Larry’s wife, yet suddenly dies and returns from the grave to haunt him and finally the non-Jewish dental patient with “Save us” mysteriously inscribed in Hebrew on the inside side of his teeth.  They are all lost souls seeking a final rest much as Larry has been forced to seek an answer from God Himself.

The Eldest Rabbi (Alan Mandell) from “A Serious Man” Courtesy Focus Films
The Eldest Rabbi (Alan Mandell), from A Serious Man, courtesy Focus Films

The movie revolves around question after question that remain unanswered: the painful questions Larry posits to anyone who will listen, especially the rabbis, are only answered with further questions, except the senior rabbi who divulges the final absurdist insight; a lyric from a strangely familiar pop song.

Texts proliferate: the Rashi seen at first seems to council passivity to accept the suffering God sends to you; the Jefferson Airplane lyrics posit despair with a hollow expression of Judaism; the old rabbi who takes this as his mantra and finally the doctor’s prognosis that foretells pending doom.

Foremost is the problem of the prologue.  What does the Yiddish-speaking dybbuk infected shtetl have to do with our tale.  Ah ha, there’s the rub!  Everything!

A Serious Man is a tale of Job caught in modern America.  All the parallels are there, especially the terribly modern notion that we, modern people, with our prized rationality we can somehow understand the workings of our world and God who rules it. The Coen Brothers warn us, not so fast!

Their movie is about contrasts.  Back in the Old World of the shtetl, the ignorant world of superstition and belief, there were nonetheless some things that were certain, like the difference between good and evil.  Even a simple housewife could perceive the abnormal nature of evil, and once understood, she acts decisively.  Not so in the modern rational world of 1967.  Larry is lost, a driven leaf unable to discern the hollowness of his friendships, the vapidity of his Judaism, and the moral emptiness of the world surrounding him.  He cannot act because he has no moral compass, no certainty of belief that would allow him to take charge of his life.  Lacking the shtetl housewife’s certainty his rationality is always undermining his ability to act decisively. He doesn’t even have the courage, as does Job, to challenge God.  And yet God, in His mercy, reacts to Larry’s emptiness.  He sends a whirlwind than will mercifully obliterate this hapless man and all his kind.

A Serious Man is an exhilarating romp through suburban Judaism, the mysteries of the human condition and the basic inability of religion to answer man’s most fundamental questions. This black comedy is devastatingly directed and written by the Coen Brothers, expertly photographed by Roger Deakins and convincingly acted by the entire cast; a tour de force by all.

Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) Asking the Rabbi from “A Serious Man” Courtesy Focus Films
Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) asking the rabbi, from A Serious Man, courtesy Focus Films

Its a bitter pill to swallow made temporally palatable by a finely honed Jewish humor filmed by the Coen Brothers in their childhood home of suburban Minneapolis. All it offers, as does the Book of Job, is the fact that we cannot know God and His ways, much of what happens to us will remain a mystery and our task is to indeed  “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” It seems Rashi had it right all along.

A Serious Man
Written, directed and produced by Joel & Ethan Coen
2009 Focus Pictures, rated R

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