A Serious Man

A Serious Man (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
viewed: 11/03/09 at CineArts@Empire, SF, CA

The Coen brothers, as to which they are most often referred, have long been filmmakers whose films I have sought out.  I think, of all of their films, I have managed to see all but Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Blood Simple (1984) in the cinema, and those, I believe, I just wasn’t aware of for whatever reasons.  At their best, they’ve made some of the most interesting, funny, visually clever, funky American movies in the past 30 years.  And until fairly recently, at their worst, the films were still interesting, if convoluted and unusual.

Then they made The Ladykillers (2004), and though it could be argued that even before with Intolerable Cruelty (2003), they’d started making movies that were less unique to themselves.

A Serious Man is quite different in many ways to any of their other films, though it bears some location and cultural resonance with Fargo (1996) in that it is set in their childhood state of Minnesota.  Actually, there is reason to find more parallels in their lives in general in this film, focused on a father of a Jewish-American family in the late 1960’s  who is a professor of physics at a university, which is similar to their father’s profession and their childhood time approximately.

The film is very focused on Judaism, or at least a person of the Jewish faith, who is turning to his faith for help in a time of multiple crises.  His wife wants to leave him, his son is smoking dope, he is being threatened by a disgruntled student and a record mailing house, and he has a brother living with him who has a multitude of issues in and of himself.  I’ve read that his situations are most explicitly comparable to the biblical Job, of whom I know only the most pedestrian of information on (I’m no biblical scholar).  And from some reading, this seems apt.

Larry Gopnik, the father (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), is tested time and again, and yet maintains his faith, though questioning why he is being so tested.  He has the patience of Job, so to speak.  He seeks help from three rabbis, from whom he gets mixed advice.  And actually, the second rabbi, who tells him a strange, seemingly metaphorical story about a Jewish dentist who finds a message in the mouth of a gentile (a “goy”, as the movie puts it).  But the story, which seems significant, also provides no guidance or answers.  And in some ways, maybe that is the message of the film itself.   What does all this story mean?  Is it in essence meaningless?

The film is steeped in period clothing, decor, style, and very much the Jewish life of the family.  The world of the film is interestingly packed with Hebrew writing and prayer, books and records that would have seemed particularly outre to the average gentile, I would guess, but are the norm in this film’s world.  The “goys” are the outsiders, the gun-toting neighbor or the Korean businessman and his son.  The world is almost entirely Jewish, though that must have been anomalous in Minnesota in the late 1960’s.  But when the son gets stoned for his Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish faces, the language, the rabbis, the Torah, the whole thing is like some trippy nightmare, winding up in the ornate and archaic office of the eldest of the rabbis, who is strangely in touch with Jefferson Starship.

The film ends with ominous imagery, a coming storm, while the storm has already been wreaking havoc in the life of Larry Gopnik.  It’s unsettling, as much of the movie is, somewhat almost misanthropic, while staying true to the noble humanity and patience that Gopnik shows throughout the film.

Is this a personal film for the Coen brothers?  Or is that a red herring as they are so wont to throw into their storytelling?  And the opening sequence, a period tale of a Jewish husband and wife, whose meaning is also left dangling for interpretation…how does that all tie in?

Though left with a multitude of possible questions, I also feel that the test of Job, of Gopnik, is a test of the audience as well.  Much like the story of the dentist, which seems so packed with meaning and significance, perhaps the message is not to question, to accept and to open one’s mind to other perspectives, as the youngest rabbi recommends.  Or is there just doom?  Gopnik suffers a mid-life crisis in which his life has the crises and he just must suffer.  And what does it mean to be a “serious man”?

Darned if I know.  And darned if I know how to place the movie either ultimately.  Like many things, this will probably have to settle in and absorb before I have more of a sense.  And then again, maybe the answers just aren’t there.

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