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Film Review: A Serious Man

Thursday, January 21, 2010
Having been an admirer of the films of the Coen Brothers for most of my adult life I was, as might be expected, eager to see their new movie, A Serious Man. My anticipation was further fanned by the movie being seen by many in the press as a modern interpretation of the Book of Job. This is one of the most personal Coen films. It is set in 1967 Minneapolis where Jewish professor of physics and family man Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) lives with his troubled family and this reflects the childhood of the Brothers Coen who grew up in a similar setting with their academic parents.

This dark comedy charts Larry’s attempts to make sense of the woes that befall him. He has health concerns and his wife is leaving him for his best friend. His son is listening to rock 'n' roll in Hebrew classes and smoking pot. His daughter is stealing money for a nose job. His brother-in-law is sleeping on the sofa and lurking in unsavoury bars. His gun-nut neighbour frightens him. A student tries to bribe him and blackmail him at the same time. The tenure committee is getting unsigned libelous letters about him. Whilst he can understand the laws of physics and the notion of cause and effect, Larry struggles to understand why he is the subject of such calamity. His constant refrain throughout the film is “I didn’t do anything!” In a more general sense this film is generally asking 'why'?

Larry’s quest for understanding - to bring rational though to seemingly mystical fate - leads him to seek the advice of three Rabbis, but he only receives peculiar analogies concerning parking lots and baffling fables. The most memorable is the tale of a Jewish dentist who discovers the Hebrew phrase "Help Me" engraved on the back of an unaware gentile patient's teeth. When the rabbi finishes his story, Larry asks if the dentist ever found out why the writing was there, and asks what became of the patient. The rabbi responds "who cares?"

After failing to meet the third Rabbi, things seem to level out for Larry. His son makes his bar mitzvah, his wife expresses regret over the recent strife, and he is granted tenure. Larry then decides that he will accept the bribe of his failing student and gives him a passing grade. This is the first immoral act Larry performs in the film. Just then Larry's doctor calls worried about the results of a chest X-ray he took at the start of the film. Meanwhile, a massive tornado is approaching Larry’s son’s school. The final scene shows the children looking at an enormous and destructive funnel cloud, whilst the teacher struggles to unlock the storm shelter.

Virginia Woolf said: “I read the Book of Job last night. God doesn’t come out very well in it”. This reflects a very narrow reading of Job, which seems to be the Coens’ mistake as well. There are obvious similarities on the surface between the film and Job but the film lacks the richness and depth of the biblical story. The directors are masters of twisting genre but setting up the Job narrative as a dark comedy - by turning the perceived lack of a rational answer to the central question of suffering into ‘the joke” - actually leaves a slightly nihilistic black hole, exemplified by the sudden and dramatic ending. There are no answers.

The intention of the Book of Job is not to lament an apparent absence of God; but to reaffirm his presence. The ending of A Serious Man could be seen as the only reference to the Divine but it is a reference to a vengeful and destructive deity. The Book of Job does show an angry God. The Lord makes a similarly dramatic appearance in Job. When He finally answers Job’s demands for an explanation, it is with a litany of examples of how nature reflects His omnipotent might and power. How dare man, God demands, question Me! How dare man, try and limit Me to a system! Nevertheless this is the same God who goes on to forgive Job for his impertinence, praises him for his steadfastness and eventually replenishes all that he had lost and more.

This is an enjoyable film but to see it as an authentic interpretation of Job is not really to understand what Job is about. The Book of Job is more devastating but also more hopeful. A Serious Man, its supposed counterpart, is lightweight and sadly empty in comparison.

Mark Davoren



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