Joel and Ethan Coen, in my opinion, make great movies, but my opinion is not shared by all. A friend once said that the Coens’ “Raising Arizona,” a favorite of mine, is one of the stupidest movies he had ever seen.
And that reflects why the brothers’ latest film, “A Serious Man,” is a movie that many will not get; viewers may think it is nothing more than two filmmakers exercising artistic hubris.
In this modern retake on the story of Job, “A Serious Man” seems to be examining the question, “Why is there suffering?”
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) represents Job and is stuck in the recurring nightmare of a life in the mid-1960s. A student in his college physics class may be attempting to bribe him for a better grade. His wife (Sari Lennick) tells him she wants a divorce and that she is seeing a fellow member of their synagogue, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed).
His son (Aaron Wolff) is high on marijuana and listening to Jefferson Airplane in Hebrew school. His brother (Richard Kind) is writing some weird formula in the bathroom constantly and hanging around illegal card games. And his daughter (Jessica McManus) is saving money for a nose job.
Larry’s life is crashing down around him like Job’s house did.
As things get worse for Larry, he seeks answers to what it all means. When his wife informs him she wants not just a legal divorce but a ritualistic Jewish divorce known as a get, she tells him he needs to see the rabbi.
Larry goes to each of the rabbis of his synagogue, beginning with the junior rabbi (Simon Helberg). When Larry explains his circumstance, the younger rabbi tells him he needs to see his troubles with a new perspective. Larry tries this but only encounters more frustration and increased troubles.
He goes to the senior rabbi (George Wyner), who tells a story about a dentist in the synagogue who worked on a gentile’s teeth. On the back of the teeth, the Hebrew word “help me” was found, leading the dentist to search and search for an answer or another sign. None came. All this does is cause the frustration in Larry to rise like the mercury on a July afternoon.
Finally, Larry attempts to see the oldest rabbi (Allan Mandell). The only trouble is that the rabbi only talks to the bar mitzvah boys. No answer is given to him. And that may be the point.
The Coens are saying something about the nature of life and faith. Both were raised in the environment of their movie. Like Larry’s son, Danny, they were raised by parents that were devoutly Jewish, college professors and faced life in the same fashion as Larry. This movie is extremely personal for these filmmakers.
While not an exercise in hubris, this is their attempt to say how they see life. Instead of answering the question of “Why bad things happen?”, they inform us that the question is not a good one to ask. What they want us to ask is, “How do we respond to bad things?”
When Danny appears in the synagogue for his bar mitzvah, he’s high. But Larry and his wife are sitting in the congregation, watching their only son and youngest child. When Danny reads, the smiles you see on their faces tells everything.
Life, according to the Coens, has many tragic events, so savor what is good and beautiful. As the old rabbi tells Danny when he meets with him, “Be a good boy.” That’s the message here. Savor the beauty and be good.
Instead of adding to the misery in the world, see and celebrate the moments that are good and go through the world doing good.
That’s not hubris. That’s good preaching.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence.
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg: Larry; Richard Kind: Uncle Arthur; Sari Lennick: Judith; Aaron Wolff: Danny; Jessica McManus: Sarah; Fred Melamed: Sy.
The movie’s Web site is here.