A Serious Man (2009)

UPDATE:  A Serious Man has been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in the coming 82nd Academy Awards, to be held March 7th, 2010.  Joel and Ethan Coen receive a nod for Best Original Screenplay.

Do we go to the movies to be entertained, or to search for meaning and answers about life? For those who frequent Ripple Effects, you probably can guess what my stance is. Yes, allow me to answer a question with a question… Why must the two be mutually exclusive?

I’m all intrigued about films that explore deep subjects and yet remain as comedies, or, dramedies, as the genre has evolved in recent years. A Serious Man is one such films, entertaining and yet hauntingly serious. But it’s not entertaining with a big splash of hilarity. It is a dark comedy, a film that makes you chuckle in a most poignant way. It’s the deadpan humor that strikes deep. The subject matter in A Serious Man deals with the inscrutable question: Why do bad things happen to good people? And, if we can’t find the answer to the why, then at least, how should we then live?

The film has been described as the most personal of Joel and Ethan Coen’s works; others see it as the most Jewish they’ve done, or even somewhat autobiographical. The setting is 1967 Minnesota, where the Coen brothers grew up.

A Serious Man has won the 2009 Independent Spirit’s Robert Altman Award, and accolades for its screenplay.  It’s one of the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Films of 2009. Michael Stuhlbarg’s excellent performance receives a 2010 Golden Globe nom for Best Actor, Musical or Comedy.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a college physics professor, a conscientious man who just tries to live his life minding his own business, trying to do what is right.  Yet, it’s trouble he finds everywhere he turns. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is divorcing him for their mutual friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed); his daughter Sarah (Jessica Mcmanus) is stealing from him to do a nose job; his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is taking drugs even as he prepares for his bar mitzvah; his unstable brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is staying uninvited in his house and has no intention to leave any time soon.  On the career front, his student Clive (David Kang) is bribing him for a passing grade; his tenure committee is making decision on his future while an anonymous letter is circulating, defaming him. At the same time, his chest x-ray result is back, and, an ominous tornado is making its way to his son’s school. I’m exhausted just to keep up. Can anyone explain why Larry is having so many problems while he is only trying to be a mensch, or, a serious man?

Larry goes searching for answers from three rabbis. While the first two cannot give him a satisfactory answer, the third, the most senior, is too busy to see him. Who then is left to help him through all his troubles?

Many critics equate Larry’s predicament with Job of the Bible, a righteous man facing incredulous torments. But Larry is no Job. He may attempt to be a righteous man, but he is not totally blameless. I feel the film may reflect the notion described in the book of Ecclesiastes even more:

… And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. Then I said in my heart, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also.  Why then have I been so very wise?’ … this too is meaningless.

Ecclesiastes 2: 14 – 15

If we have no control over the bad things that happen to all, it’s only natural to question why we ought to be good then. If his wife runs away with another man, is it justified that Larry should lust for another woman? Since bad things will happen to the good and the bad alike, why bother being good? Do we act prudently because we expect positive consequences, or, do we act prudently because it is the right thing to do, period. And now, the moment of decision, the bribe…

A Serious Man throws at us more questions than answers, expectedly so, for who has all the answers? It is in such precarious situations that we look into our hearts and search ourselves. Instead of a challenge thrown at HaShem, God, I see the film as one that’s turned towards us: what would I have done?

~ ~ ~ Ripples


Published by


If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

10 thoughts on “A Serious Man (2009)”

  1. It’s (almost) funny how certain topics seem to glom together. I was just reading and pondering the final chapters of Job last weekend and several references to Job have since popped up.

    Your question about our motives for doing the right thing — I think it’s a little of both. Jesus talks quite a lot about rewards in Matthew because we can’t help but be motivated by them.


    It’s never simple to decipher one’s motive, it’s complex and could be obscure even to oneself. Maybe I should rephrase the words ‘positive consequences’ and use ‘self-serving rewards’ instead. The ‘what’s-in-it-for-me’ kind of good deeds as opposed to doing right even though we might have to suffer for it. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify.



  2. Thank you for this very good review. I hadn’t heard of it yet, I’m so out of it. It sounds wonderful, something I would enjoy (more than No Country for Old Men, which was well done, but too disturbing for me).

    In the last few years of my spiritual journey – more so than when I considered myself a Christian – I have found myself settled into a sense of things that has little to do with “right” and “wrong” as I knew them growing up. One New Age-y way to put it is, it is an evolving thing to do? I think the commandments in the Old Testament were from the start for the good of people, to help them have better lives, not just to find random ways to control people. What has happened over the centuries, of course, is another matter entirely.

    So often I hear someone respond to someone who has insulted them, with an insult. These are “good” people. In some way, I understand their point, that somehow they “deserve” it, after their behavior. But if I don’t want to “feed the monster” of hate, I don’t want to feed it. Period. It’s what’s in me, what I do with what I’m given, that matters.

    But then, I have a very very un-Job-like life. How would I be if I were stricken with all those things, I wonder?


    In recent decades where relativism has taken over traditional value systems, I find it all the more that we need some sort of an anchor for ethics, a pointer of directions. It is a challenge to decide what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ without a shared, universal measurement.

    Like you, I hadn’t enjoyed ‘No Country…’ that much. I think ‘A Serious Man’, even though it’s dark and may look bleak as you walk out of the theatre, to me is much more enjoyable and at times, very funny. And it sure can get you to think about certain issues. The talents of the Coen brothers really shine through this one I think.



  3. From your brief description of the film, I find the premise terrifically interesting and Larry quite appealing. I’d need to see it to test some of my hypotheses, but this much is clear: there are times in life when there is no answer available from external authorities. We are left on our own, to decide. (Those three rabbis are very interesting!)

    That kind of moral freedom can be terrifying – choosing the good over the bad isn’t always easy. Even more difficult is making a choice when there’s no way to distinguish the bad from the good! Often we dither and dither, waiting to resolve the ambiguity, when all we really can do is chose, not knowing what the consequences of our choice will be.

    From another perspective, I wonder if Larry isn’t an example of people who try to live their lives outside history – outside the messiness of human relationships and uncontrollable events. While he rocking along, trying to mind his own business – and perhaps only his own business! – the world is knocking on every door of his carefully constructed life.

    Of all the films you’ve reviewed, this one intriques me most. I’ve never heard of it, but I’ll have to see if I can locate it.


  4. I read a couple of other reviews just now, and found this quote from Rabbi Marshak: “When the truth is found to be lies, And all the joy within you dies…”

    That’s from the Jefferson Airplane song, “Don’t you want somebody to love?” This movie’s getting more interesting all the time!


  5. Linda,

    Yes, that’s the song and you have to see the movie to appreciate the humor. Everybody is looking for somebody to love, but above all, to be loved in the midst of irrational happenings. You’re right, there are times when there’s just no answer, and it seems such times happen more and more frequently nowadays.

    So the Coen brothers have created a film that seems to shake up faith in a benevolent God, or, a God too busy to care … just like the third and most senior rabbi. But I tend to see it as more an ethical challenge. So, bad things happen to good people too, how are we going to conduct our lives then? Furthermore, who can say he/she is ‘good’ and without faults after all?

    But yes, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this film. As you can tell, it was only screened at a limited engagement in selected theaters. But with the award ceremonies coming up, maybe it’ll get a chance to be shown again.


  6. I think the Coen brothers have, in their own way, been examining these questions throughout their filmmaking career. When is good bad, or bad good? Which is which? Does it matter? Raising Arizona, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Fargo… (I missed The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men, so cannot comment on those).

    A Serious Man seems to be, from your review, the first of their movies that addresses these questions directly–and that involves religion. Interesting choices in these interesting times. This is a film I definitely must see! Thank you


    I’ve seen a few of their works, not all, but enough to say that yes, their filmmaking often deals with serious subjects packaged in light and sardonic humor, except ‘No Country’ which is dark on dark. A Serious Man is a more direct hit. You can say it’s the Coen’s exposition on faith, questions, God, and religion (Judaism). While it’s very easy to shift to a ‘no God’ mode whenever bad things happen, especially to ‘good’ people, I tend to diverge and feel that those are times when we can be more reflective in searching ourselves. While we can’t always find answers to the why’s, we can always decide on the what’s of our actions.

    Sounds like you’re one well-versed Coen fan… I’m curious to know your response after you’ve seen this film.



  7. I liked this film a lot – again it’s a while since I’ve seen it so will find it hard to comment in detail. My son, who is a huge Coen fan said it was the first Coen movie to disappoint him and found it was just too miserable. I thought it was dark, but had that Jewish self-deprecating humour which I like. The moral conundra were so well teased out as you say. Nice review. (I mostly only review Aussie movies I see, so it is great to see your reviews of other films).


    I’m all excited to hear from a reader who’s a Janeite, likes the Coen bros, Ishiguro, read all of Lahiri’s works, watch lots of movies, and, unmoved by Inception and Avatar. Thank you for reading my posts and leaving your comments! I’ve just added Whispering Gums to my Blogroll to keep update with Aussie books and movies. 🙂



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s