Coen Marathon: A Serious Man

“I am the junior rabbi. And it’s true, the point-of-view of somebody who’s older and perhaps had similar problems might be more valid. And you should see the senior rabbi as well, by all means. Or even Minda if you can get in, he’s quite busy. But maybe – can I share something with you? Because I too have had the feeling of losing track of Hashem, which is the problem here. I too have forgotten how to see Him in the world. And when that happens you think, well, if I can’t see Him, He isn’t there any more, He’s gone. But that’s not the case. You just need to remember how to see Him. Am I right?  I mean, the parking lot here. Not much to see. It is a different angle on the same parking lot we saw from the Hebrew school window. But if you imagine yourself a visitor, somebody who isn’t familiar with these… autos and such… somebody still with a capacity for wonder… Someone with a fresh… perspective. That’s what it is, Larry…Because with the right perspective you can see Hashem, you know, reaching into the world. He is in the world, not just in shul. It sounds to me like you’re looking at the world, looking at your wife, through tired eyes. It sounds like she’s become a sort of… thing… a problem… a thing…”

“The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know… what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the mid-term.”

“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” -Rashi

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Most people have probably not heard of the Coen Brothers movie “A Serious Man”.  That is a shame.  After making a film with a star-studded cast set in Washington DC (George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, and JK Simmons), their next movie would feature a not very famous cast.  “A Serious Man” is, by far, the most underrated film in the Coen canon.  It is a brilliant film arguably just barely missing the greatness of “Fargo” or “No Country for Old Men”.

The film opens with a strange prologue that is in Yiddish and set in an unnamed eastern European country in the 19th century.  A Jewish man tells his wife that a man had helped him on his way home and he had invited this man to come over for soup.  When he mentions the man’s name, Reb Groshkover, his wife proclaims that Groshkover is dead and that the man who had come over for soup must be possessed by an evil spirit.  The wife plunges an ice pick into Groshkover’s chest and Groshkover turns and walks out into the snow.  Why did this happen and what does this scene have to do with the rest of the movie?  The question is the point.

The only connection of that prologue to the central plot is theme.  The film centers around a mid-western physics teacher named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg).  He lives in a suburb in Bloomington, Minnesota and the year is 1967.  He and his family are Jewish and attend a local synagogue where his son is about to receive his Bar Mitzvah. Important to note that the Coen Brothers grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, are Jewish and this story is alleged to be somewhat based on their childhood and thereby is a more personal movie.

Anyway, Gopnik is a cinematic character that we will justifiably feel awful for.  His daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus) is stealing from him to save up for a nose job.  Danny, his son (Aaron Wolff), is a pothead who demands he fix the TV antenna and his wife, Judy (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce so she can marry their friend, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and she swears (not that we are convinced) that there has been no “hanky-panky”.

Our protagonist, Larry Gopnik, fills an entire blackboard in his classes with mathematic proofs approaching certainty for the discipline of physics but what is he sure of in life?  What is certain in his existence?  Nothing.  As evidenced in his family life and beyond that, a land dispute with his over-testosteroned neighbor, and a student attempting to bribe him for good grades, Larry feels like his entire life is coming apart.

The film has appropriately been compared to the account of Job in the Old Testament.  The story of Job revolves around how his entire life became upended for no discernible reason to him.  His family died.  His wealth was lost. Job had no answers or explanations for why this happened to him.  For the tribulations facing Larry Gopnik, there are no explanations either.  Counseling with Rabbi’s, Larry seeks insight into the will of God.  An older Rabbi sits at his desk in a big long room and the secretary says that Rabbi is “busy” thinking.  Another Junior Rabbi is available that offers circular reasoning on the will of God question, tells Larry that he lacks perspective and asks him to consider a perspective of the parking lot outside.  We always have to allow the comic absurdity of a Coen Brothers film.

A big part of the Jewish faith, to my understanding, is how many of them interpret their sacred Scriptures.  Many western thinkers and philosophers approach the Bible seeking a singular answer as the Word of God should provide answers to our questions according to this school of thought.  Many Jewish thinkers approach Old Testament interpretation with a perspective of wrestling with the text and perhaps coming out with no clear answer.  Think of Jacob wrestling the angel in Genesis 32:22-31.

For me, there is a central scene in this movie which is after Danny (while high on pot) completes his Bar Mitzvah.  Walking into the elderly Rabbi’s office, Danny walks slowly toward the desk.  The camera takes its time on this scene showing Danny slowly approaching the Jewish leader.  What will the Rabbi tell Danny?  Will Danny receive insight into the meaning of life?  A purpose?  Any answer to existence?  When Danny is standing immediately in front of the desk, the Rabbi opens his mouth and declares:  “When the truth is found to be lies/ And all the joy within you dies”.  Of course, these are the lyrics to a popular “Jefferson Airplane” pop song “Somebody to Love” and the Rabbi proceeds to recite the names of the band members.  Imagine the shock on Danny’s face.

The scene is hilarious in a darkly ironic way because the entire sequence, with the buildup, feels absurd and that is the point.  Or is it really a point at all?  I have nothing to go on but speculation however I imagine that if we wanted to know what the Coen Brothers thought about life metaphysically, we may as well start right here in this personal film of theirs.  In a scene where we may have expected a profound insight into life’s meaning, the teacher quotes a pop song from the 1960s.  To add another layer though, that song, simplistic as it is, does exclaim in the chorus:  “Don’t you want somebody to love/ Don’t you need somebody to love.”

When the conclusion comes around, I would offer a guess that a good deal of people who actually saw the film will be frustrated at the final frame.  Without giving away what ends up happening, to say that “A Serious Man” has an abrupt ending is definitely an understatement.  Scenarios are introduced that will massively impact the characters that we have come to know.  In the true spirit of this film, we will never know the outcome of those scenarios.  But remember, that is the point if it is any point at all.

Lester Lauding Level:  4.5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

No Country for Old Men (review here)

Fargo (review here)

A Serious Man

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (review here)

The Big Lebowski (review here)

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)

Raising Arizona (review here)

Burn After Reading (review here)

The Man Who Wasn’t There (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Barton Fink (review here)

Intolerable Cruelty (review here)

The Ladykillers (review here)

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About dangeroushope

Striving to follow Christ, love people and learn more about the world.
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One Response to Coen Marathon: A Serious Man

  1. Pingback: Coen Marathon: True Grit | Dangerous Hope

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