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