A Serious Man

Posted on February 9, 2010 at 8:00 am

Larry Gopnik (theater actor Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor in 1967 Minneapolis. He covers a blackboard the size of a movie screen with equations, confidently lecturing his students about the uncertainty principle but outside the classroom unable to cope with the uncertainty all around him. He can explain that Schrodinger’s (hypothetical) Cat inside a box may be both dead and alive, but he has a much harder time understanding his wife (who is leaving him), a student who may be attempting to bribe him for a better grade, the tenure committee that will decide his professional fate, all of which has him feeling as though he is in a box and both dead and alive, too. Larry’s son does not seem to care about anything but being able to watch the western sitcom “F Troop.” His daughter seems to spend all of her time washing her hair. His brother (Richard Kind) seems to be either a genius or completely mad, but in either case he does not seem capable of living on his own. Larry wants to be a serious man, and he wants some answers.

So, like a character in a fable or a fairy tale, he brings his questions to three rabbis, a young one who wants him to see everything as an expression of God’s will, an experienced one who tells him a mesmerizing but pointless story about a non-Jew’s teeth and tells him to do good works, and one who is very old and remote and is too busy thinking to talk to him. Internally, he becomes more stressed but his reactions are passive and conciliatory. The audience feels a sense of helplessness and dread as it seems we are more aware of the disasters heading for Larry than he is. A record company calls to tell him he needs to pay for the records he ordered. He says he has not ordered anything and they tell him that under the terms of their agreement not doing anything means ordering. And Larry is as poorly equipped to resolve that problem as he is to stop his wife from leaving him for a neighbor who somehow has the confidence, admiration, and deference he wishes for. Throughout the movie, there are many close-ups of ears, but no one seems to be listening to what is going on in front of them. He goes up on the roof to adjust the antennae, but still has trouble receiving the signal.

Under pressure, he begins to make some compromises that are contrary to his values, and that increases his stress and sense of losing control. As he searches for some sense of meaning or connection or even (he is a scientist after all) rationality, he does not realize that the answer is what he tells his students: that everything is uncertain but you are still responsible for it on the midterm.

Much has been made of the fact that for the first time Joel and Ethan Coen have made a film with autobiographical elements. Like Larry’s children, the Coen brothers grew up in a Jewish suburb of Minneapolis in the 1960’s, and like Larry, their father was a professor. But you get the feeling that they have once again appropriated and embraced and tweaked a genre just for the fun of it, and that it has no more meaning to them than any of the others. As Larry says, the stories are just illustrative; the math is how it really works.

Once again, as with Wes Anderson, meticulous and imaginative production design and a level of opacity far beyond most mainstream releases is often confused with profundity. Perhaps this is an ink blot for us to project our own questions on. Or perhaps it is their version of what Larry tells his students, and our midterm is coming up.

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7 Replies to “A Serious Man”

  1. So, you have a movie produced by
    disenchanted Jews who [it appears]
    know little or nothing about Judaism and Jewish Philosophy
    and use the opportunity to depict
    Rabbis as helpless or fools or irrelevant and Judaism has
    having no real understanding of life.
    THIS is supposed to be a movie that Jews
    should “feel good about”?
    The problem of “good people” having unhappy
    or “unfair” lives is one that has really
    been studied pretty seriously in Judaism.
    However, the Coen Brothers appear to be more
    interested in “trashing” Rabbis and Judaism
    more than anything else. Is it really the case that the
    rabbis he depicts are “representative”?
    If this represents
    an “autobiography” then they had a very shallow
    Jewish Foundation.
    The movie may be “technically” very well made.
    But, it represents an insult to Classical Judaism
    and to Jews who practice it.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Zvi. The caricatured and grotesque portrayals in the film bothered me, which is why I described it as superficial and empty, though I believe it engages a little more seriously with the issues of bad things happening to good people than you do. I do not think anyone, Jew or gentile, could imagine that this was considered to be an accurate portrayal of Jews or Judaism. Comments like yours are very welcome reminders.

  3. Neil —
    I guess what is REALLY sad is that
    we have not had “good” (i.e., well-made,
    accurate) movies about Jews in a long time.
    Could such movies be made? Sure. But, what
    happens? We get “Fiddler on the Roof” (for example)
    which takes the horrendous situation that Shalom Aleichem
    described with laughter to hide the tears and turns
    that situation into a parody. To this day, I have still
    has people ask me aobut “Wedding Dancing” based solely
    upon “Fiddler”… and, of course, the problem (and heartbreak)
    associated with intermarriage is turned on its head as the
    child who chooses to intermarry is the “with it” one and her
    father is just “supposed to get with the program”…
    When was the last time that a movie made about Jews
    (which — by the way — can certainly be humorous)
    actually said something accurate and respectful?
    Well, there was that movie a couple of years ago from
    Israel with a husand and wife as the actors — a
    beautiful movie… but what sort of distribution and
    release did it have?
    To me, it is especially sad that two Jewish Brothers
    would choose to “proudly” display their contempt for
    Rabbis and their ignorance of Jewish theology with
    a movie that will achive such a wide distribution.

  4. You are right, Zvi. It is rare to see a sincere and thoughtful person of any faith in a mainstream film. Most movie and television characters are sort of generic but not very observant Christians. I especially enjoyed “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist” because of the brief discussion of tikkun olam. It is always welcome to see some representation of Jews and Judaism that is not about bagels, the Holocaust, or Woody Allen.

  5. I came by via RottenTomatoes because it seemed to me your excerpt was ambivalent and slightly negative.
    The Coen Brothers, who received an Academy Award for their adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey to Depression-era Mississippi in “Oh Brother Where Art Thou,” have again made a witty transformation of a classic text to a recognizable era. As I’m sure we all know, this was an adaptation of Job. I believe the three rabbis were meant to represent the three neighbors/friends who “comfort” Job as he wails outside the city, having lost his wife, children, livestock, and land. As I recall, those friends made arguments that weren’t particularly convincing, especially, as we know from the beginning of the book, Job’s troubles are brought on by a wager between God and The Advocate (Jerusalem Bible translation) that The Advocate can make Job crack. Other parallels are found: over at imdb, someone pointed out the similarity between seeing the neighbor and David seeing Bathsheba. I wonder if Danny’s travails have a parallel with the Old Testament’s Daniel (I’ll have to read up to check that one out.) Was the Jolly Rogers exile in Babylon? Weeping by the waters? Doesn’t Leonard’s brother ask the question of Cain, “Why do I not find favor in Thee, Oh Lord?”
    And all the marvelous paradoxes, including the one you caught and articulated and which I had missed. You may not understand the stories, but you will be responsible on the day of testing. At the outset, the devil infiltrates via favors, The Lord infiltrates via trials.
    Clearly, I found it a rich and satisfying film. I also laughed, as I do at many Coen Brothers’ movies. Now I don’t believe I was laughing at grotesque caricatures or the ridicule of a particular faith. Having been raised Presbyterian and currently not religious, I grant that I may not be properly attuned to such issues. Had a good friend who was Jewish and once, when we were discussing “Life of Brian,” she told me “My God has a sense of humor.” Tragically, she died very prematurely. It makes one wonder or perhaps say “Yes and No.”

  6. I explained this better in the first attempt, which timed out, was lost, and had to be recreated… well I was warned.
    Your review was flagged as positive at RottenTomatoes, and so I came by to read it in its entirety and then commented in the hopes I had something to add to your thoughtful observations. For those who are concerned, there are language, sexuality, and drug use issues.

  7. Your comment is filled with insight and beautifully expressed, dannyo152. Many thanks, and please come back and let us know what you think of the movies you see. And yes, God certainly has a sense of humor; perhaps that is the most important way in which we are made in His image.

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