Film Reviews

A Serious Man Joel and Ethan Coen

Rating - 8/10

While the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man delineates its own remote Midwestern Jewish community in the late 1960s, the grand intentions of the film are laid bare in the opening minutes of its ancient Yiddish parable with ample projections of spirituality complemented by the Rashi quote, "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." The universality of the introductory fable intends to draw obscure yet secure associations to the film's feature-length protagonist, physics professor Larry Gopnik, who comes to inhabit the renowned medieval rabbi's words in his existential crisis and escalating state of disillusionment.

Residing in the center of the Gopnik family's mayhem is the emphasis of liturgical music interacting with the classic Jefferson Airplane tune "Somebody to Love," a series of misguiding rabbis, and the sensibilities of an epic fantasy instilled within the commonplace of suburbia. One of the most distinguishing aspects of A Serious Man is its ability to regularly extract the fantastical and stirring (through wide-angled cinematography and sequences of reverie) from the monotony of daily routine and habitual faith.

Capturing the precise era of the film, the sporadic use of Jefferson Airplane's 1967 legendary hit contrasted by traditional Jewish music is a bold exercise in tonal timelessness. The modern psychedelic aria not only provides an appropriate societal mood that meshes with son Danny's marijuana-selling business and smoking habits, but it succinctly captures Larry's progressive cynicism with his own life and offers an appropriate template for analyzing plot points. The opening lyric to the song, "When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies" is commentary on the downward turn in Larry's life through the course of the film. Prior to the onset of the main narrative, which is mystically channeled through a gold ring from the opening Yiddish parable, it seems that Mr. Gopnik's life is remarkably average yet content. Unfortunately, when a student attempts to bribe him for a passing grade and his wife reveals her dissatisfaction with their marriage and ongoing affair with longtime family friend Sy Ableman, Larry begins to question his faith in Hashem (the Jewish term for God). Though shaken, he initially attempts to solitarily resolve his emotional entanglement; his family and friends urge him to first seek Rabbi Ginsler for conflict resolution and divine inspiration. Unfortunately for Larry, the voices of the three rabbis in the film (like inverted versions of the three Magi) are more confounding than responsive.

Uncle Arthur, the anomalous and unwanted guest in the Gopnik household, sends a peculiar ripple through A Serious Man with an intermittent and intriguing presence. His notebook dubbed "The Mentaculus," which contains mathematical formulas and unending geometric patterns, is supposedly a probability map of the universe (that seems to inadvertently share a personal relationship to Larry). Although the book is a rather pretentious and indefinable object, Arthur's imposing ideas certainly have resonance in a film about the Jewish spirit, amplified by traditional hymns, modern music, and the relevance of Hebrew texts of mysticism (Tanakh, Zohar and Kabbalah). Larry's dreams also relate to the effects of probability, at one point unveiling a lecture to his physics class about the uncertainty principle. In short, this theory concerns perception and how humanity can never be positive of anything. Interestingly, Larry's overarching skepticism is in direct opposition to his faith in Hashem; however, the film's circuitous arc has a way of reassuring his ultimate confusion through a visit to the second rabbi, Nachtner, who enlightens him on a story of a dentist, Dr. Sussman, who was driven to obsession by a divine engraving on a patient's incisors. Eventually, the dentist, unable to formulate a logical or sacred conclusion, abandons the quest. A strangely humorous philosophical undertone pervades this flashback sequence similar to Trinity's confrontation in the first Matrix film. "It's the question that drives us. It's the question that brought you here. You know the question just as I did," she temptingly whispers in Neo's ear. Here, Nachtner merely provides Larry with an inconclusive spiritual lesson to which he unenthusiastically responds, "who cares?"

With stark religious symbolism and a penchant for dark humor, recent critics have characterized A Serious Man as a modern interpretation of the Book of Job. Others, like Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman disagree, but both Larry and Job are undeniably similar in their search for a definite meaning in life, their successive trials and tribulations, and struggles with the problem of evil in a world under Hashem's rule. The title of the film, while not an obvious reference, also bears religious or moral significance; it is uttered during a eulogy by Rabbi Natchtner. In it, he describes the deceased as "a serious man," which interpreted literally, suggests that he was an important or determined person. However, the definition proves to be partial as Larry takes the quote upon himself later in the film, applying it in a different context. Weeping, he confesses (to his lawyer of all people) that he's not an evil man; rather, he's a serious one who means to do right or good in life. Fundamentally, the suburban tale, like the Yiddish parable that precedes it, is the genius of the Coen Brothers' modern allegorical craft that mystifies Rashi's counseling quote.  Humanity should seek simplicity since it doesn't have all the answers, yet "it is the question that drives us."