The Coen Brothers have made a career of examining the more absurd sides of philosophy, morality and ethics.Â They have, perhaps, never done so in such a personal a manner as they do in A Serious Man. In this, their most recent opus, the Coens delve into the biblical story of Job by taking us on the journey of Larry Gopnik, an average college professor of physics at an unnamed Midwestern university.
The film begins, strangely enough, in a Russia shtetl, in what is a mini preamble to the main story.Â A milkman and his wife argue about whether or not a visitor they have in their home is an actual person or whether he is a dybbuk. (In Jewish folklore this is a wandering soul who escapes hell and takes possession of a living body.)Â The debate is resolved in a violent and uncertain fashion, after which the wife reassures her nervous husband that good will always triumph over evil.
The story then moves forward to the late 1960″™s.Â From the start, we are witness to the slow unraveling of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg).Â It begins with a Korean student who tries to talk Larry into altering his failing grade and ends up leaving an envelope of money on Larry”™s desk as a bribe.Â At home we meet Larry”™s chaotic family – wife Judith (Sari Lennick), son Danny (Aaron Wolff), daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) as well as his brother Arthur (Richard Kind). Soon, Larry is engulfed in a relentless avalanche of misfortune ignited by the bribery episode and his life, both at home and work, collapses.
The story of A Serious Man is not just about a generally good and unassuming man”™s life being randomly taken apart, but investigates how such a man is supposed to find solace, guidance, reason or hope within a crisis.Â In particular, the Coens seems to be examining the validity of their own Jewish faith at such times.Â Larry seeks help from three separate rabbis, whose authority is introduced by ominous title cards.Â But the answers and guidance these Rabbis provide Larry are empty, shallow and confusing, at best.Â No matter how much Larry might press them for help, they cannot respond with any more comfort than the equivalent of a shrug.
Whereas, in the opening preamble, there is a clear cut conclusion that good will triumph over evil, Larry”™s protests that he is a “serious man” seem to feel on deaf (or even non-existent) ears.
Aside from the fact that the Coens seem to be saying that there is no rational cause and effect to anything in life when it comes to being morally good or bad, they also seem to be saying that the people who are supposed to be advising us and guiding us through this life of confusion (the leaders in organized religion) have nothing more pertinent to say to us than any other kind of person.Â Religion provides baffling parables, trite affirmations and no real answers to apply to real life, and the consequences of your choices in life do not necessarily spring from their uprightness or lack there of.Â In short, it is all chaos.Â The final image of the film is a perfect exclamation point by simply leaving us at the mercy of the whims of nature itself.
Like all Coen Brothers films, A Serious Man is extremely well made in all respects.Â The superb cast of A Serious Man is largely culled from outside their usual stable of actors.Â Like many of their films, the tone is one of slightly heightened reality, which only adds to the horror of what transpires.Â Though I would hardly call it their best work, A Serious Man will stick with you long after viewing, and certainly make you think about the meaning they were trying to impart to the audience and how this compares to your own beliefs.Â Rather than presenting a centralized message or theme, these filmmakers seem to revel in the lack of such a thing and take delight in the torture they can put their characters through and the struggle we may have in watching it unfold
If the story of Job was in celluloid, the Coens would most definitely be the Almighty.Â If you are looking for answers, looks elsewhere.Â The Coen Brothers don”™t seem to be interested in anything other than offering an engaging and violent ride.
Review by Zach Jacobs