Saturday, November 28, 2009


My predominant reaction the first time I saw the Coen Brothers' film, "A Serious Man" (9.5) was delight and gratitude that the brothers had thought to make a film about a part of American culture that hasn't really been portrayed in our popular media. Who else would even think to make a film depicting life in a fairly enclosed Jewish American community in the Midwest, circa 1967? Who else would begin their film with a seemingly disconnected Yiddish fable set hundreds of years ago in a shtetl somewhere in eastern Europe? Who else would have viewers scratching their heads in the very first scene, and yet fill their film with so many fascinating bits of detail that they never lose their audience's interest?

The Coens love to riff on familiar stories ("The Odyssey" in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is the best example) and the homage here is to the biblical story of Job, a righteous man whose experience with a series of tragedies leaves him questioning what God is doing to him, and who receives unhelpful advice on his situation from a series of religious advisors. Here he is embodied by Larry Gopnik, a gently befuddled college physics professor who is up for a difficult tenure vote and whose life is beginning to unravel. His inexplicably bitter wife has taken up with an unctious older man; his brother, who appears to be struggling with mental illness, is living with him and engaging in increasingly worrisome behaviors; his son, soon to celebrate his bar mitzvah, has developed a somewhat problematic fondness for marijuana and Jefferson Airplane; and an oddly menacing student is attempting to bribe him to change and "unacceptable" grade.

All of this throws Larry into reverie. Appropriately, he is an admittedly tenuous expert in baffling ideas like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle which, as A.O. Scott points out, more or less translates into "God knows" since we can't. The problem is, God (or Hashem--"the name"--in Jewish parlance) doesn't appear to be taking questions. What does Hashem want? Is he trying to teach us something? Larry grasps for a way to make sense of it all, visiting three successive rabbis for answers, and each time comes up empty. God knows, but apparently He's not telling.

An earnest struggle for meaning takes particular shape in the context of Jewish culture--indeed, what better place for such a struggle? As one character memorably exclaims, "Thank heaven we're Jews, and we have access to such wonderful traditions to help us sort out the answers." When she urges Larry to talk to a rabbi, he wonders aloud, "What's the rabbi going to say?" Her response: "If I knew that, I'd be the rabbi."

That exchange is a perfect example of what Larry's pondering yields him. He poses the right questions, and asks them with an apparently pure heart. As he puts it, he tries to be a "serious man." Yet, despite the promise of meaning to be found in his religious tradition, the promised answers disintegrate in his hands.

Yet the Coens are not dishonoring their Jewish heritage. It's hard to imagine a more careful, loving tribute. They revel in so many small details: the potty-mouthed kid on the bus home from Hebrew school; the fables about everything and nothing; the rabbi whose office is filled with odd and vaguely menacing artifacts and is too busy "thinking" to see a desperate Larry but is surprisingly present and even wise with his 13-year-old son; the complex mix of loving attachment and offhandedness with which members of the community treat its traditions. I also admired the Coens' willingness to sit with the questions the story raises; faithful to their biblical source material, they have honored the story, the culture the film depicts, and the questions themselves.

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