A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009)


‘When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies…’ So sing Jefferson Airplane, through a walkman feeding their psychedelic sounds into the ear of a Jewish boy, soon to become Bar Mitzvah. The headphones are putting him in a world that is quite different from the one he should be in. They are providing a distraction from his lessons in Hebrew, as is the marijuana he occasionally smokes. This boy is the son of Larry Gopnik, a college professor of physics, who becomes the unfortunate target of the Coen brothers for a modern embodiment of the biblical Job. Yet the joke, we find, is not on him. It is on Judaism. The Coen brothers clearly find the religion they were subjected to in their youth to be absurd, and A Serious Man succeeds emphatically in explaining to us why.

Everything that could possibly go wrong in Larry’s life does indeed go wrong. Every element of his existence crumbles before our eyes. His wife wants a ritual divorce (a ‘gett’), so she can marry his friend, Sy Abelman. He’s forced to move out and live in a cheap motel, with his socially inept brother, Arthur. He has financial problems, which sharpen when he’s pressured into paying for Sy’s funeral when he dies in a car crash. He’s being simultaneously bribed and blackmailed by a Chinese student incapable of accepting his F grade, he’s having petty disputes with his neighbor regarding property lines, and all his children can do is steal cash from his wallet and moan about the TV aerial’s fuzziness.

His life turns into a disaster zone, and the dullness of it all is made clear by the monotone look of every scene. Wherever Larry goes, everything is either grey, pale green or light blue. There’s nothing vibrant about his existence, and the pain is reinforced by Sy’s bastard-like, patronising insistence upon comforting Larry over the loss of his wife that he himself is a part of.

What is Larry to do in such a situation? Who could possibly provide him with the insightful life advice he so desperately needs? It’s the local Rabbis, obviously. After all, they know their scripture, and they know God. They are the perfect people to lead Larry through this time of suffering. They are of such value that ‘the First Rabbi’ is stamped upon the screen for us before Larry’s meeting with him. He enters, he talks. The Rabbi’s response is nothing short of first class: look outside at the parking lot. It’s beautiful. How could Larry forget about the awe and wonder that the divinely designed suburbs of Minneapolis provoke within him? Larry, the Rabbi insists, is looking at things through tired eyes and from a warped perspective. He needs to see his surroundings in a new, refreshed way.

The second Rabbi is equally alienating, but for entirely different reasons. He acknowledges Larry’s pain, at least, rather than denying its existence. But in doing so he tells a lengthy and, incidentally, absolutely hilarious anecdote, about a Jewish dentist in the neighborhood who discovered a cryptic message in Hebrew carved into the back of one of his patients’ teeth. After much searching, the man gives up on its meaning. There’s a silence. Larry is perplexed, but waits for the punch line. It doesn’t come. The Rabbi has no idea either, and he insists that it doesn’t matter. We can’t know everything, after all. God might ask certain questions in life without providing answers, but he’s yet to explain why he does it.

Larry is dumbfounded. It sounds like the leaders of his faith don’t know anything and have no words of comfort in his time of need. He tries one last time, attempting to get a meeting with the oldest and wisest Rabbi in the region, Rabbi Marshak. But it turns out he’s busy thinking, and doesn’t have the time to see Larry. Not even us, the viewers, are allowed into his office. The camera stays firmly rooted outside the door.

As Larry’s life continues to down-spiral, and his dreams become increasingly disturbing in their vividness, he seems to lose hope. It dies within him. The truth has been found to be lies. He accepts his student’s bribe, and receives a phone call from his doctor immediately regarding some scan results. The Airplane song plays again, as the film goes full circle. Even Marshak quotes the song lyrics to Larry’s son upon his Bar Mitzvah. God’s wrath, we can only assume, descends upon Larry and his neighborhood, as the film fades out.

The reasons for what happens and the film’s messages are quite subtle, but the Coen brothers undoubtedly want us to first and foremost see the absurdity of it all loud and clear. A Serious Man lets us do so, and also, magically, makes us feel comfortable in laughing at the tragic nature of Larry’s desparation. That’s why it’s cinematic gold, and it’s why the critics are wrong: on an intellectual level, this is Joel and Ethan Coen’s best film.

One Response to “A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009)”

  1. 1 26 for late 2010, or early 2011 (Part 1) « jacob williamson | thoughts on film

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