"Embrace the Mystery"
A SERIOUS MAN is Joel and Ethan Coen’s attempt to explore some of the mysteries of the universe, such as: Why do bad things happen to good people?; and, What is God asking me to do? The movie is also an exploration of the two men’s childhood growing up as Jews in the Midwest, in Minnesota.
The Coen Brothers (RAISING ARIZONA, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, FARGO, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU, and MILLER’S CROSSING) don’t answer any theological questions about the existence of God and the nature of His character, but they come to the conclusion that people should be content with the circumstances that God visits upon them. In fact, they open the movie with this quote from Rashi, the French medieval rabbi and Talmudic writer (circa 1040-1105): “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” (Paul’s belief in Philippians 4:10-13 about being content with whatever circumstance God places you seems to be an equivalent piece of advice.) The Coens also seem to conclude in A SERIOUS MAN that love is important and that being good is a worthy goal. Regrettably, however, these answers, such as they are, take place in a somewhat dark and mysterious world. Also, the scene where they conclude that love is important is put in such a trite context that it seems a bit ambiguous. This leaves viewers with the same enlightenment about the subject they may or may not have had when they started watching the movie in the first place.
Ultimately, this movie seems to reflect a refusal, and a timidity, in making a really bold statement about God, faith, the human condition, and morality, especially one that validates faith and values. Accept the mysteries of life and don’t really try to understand them or control them, the Coen Brothers seem to say. In the end, therefore, the Coens just seem to be toying with their characters, and their audience. Come to think of it, this may be a major problem with many, if not most, of their movies, no matter how well or entertaining they are made.
The story here focuses on Larry Gopnik, a Jewish university physics professor in 1967, and his family. Larry has begun to take his family for granted a little bit. His distracted, pot-smoking son Danny is a discipline problem even though he’s about to undergo his Bar Mitzvah, his daughter Sarah is stealing money from his wallet to save up for a nose job, his strange unemployed brother is sleeping on the couch, and an Asian graduate student appears to be trying to bribe him to change his grade from an “F”. To make matters worse, Larry’s pushy wife, Judith, has just informed him that she is leaving him for a pompous, older Jewish widower named Sy Ableman. Larry tries to find clarity and comfort from the rabbis at his synagogue, while things go from bad to worse.
A SERIOUS MAN is excellent at bringing out the atmosphere of a bygone era in an American subculture – a Jewish community in Middle America before the advent of the Hippie Generation. Virtual unknown Michael Stuhlberg does a brilliant job of portraying the perplexed and put-upon Larry. None of the rabbis, however, offers Larry much of anything to help him. Despite this, the elderly rabbi emeritus tells Larry’s son to “find someone to love” and “be a good boy.” This is good advice, but it comes across a bit trite in the movie. Also, the ending is open-ended, which leaves the viewer groping for real guidance, insight, and closure. Ultimately, this droll, funny movie shows a lack of vision and a lack of theological/philosophical depth.
A SERIOUS MAN also contains some foul language, lewd sexual references, brief nudity, and marijuana use by the son and later by the father with the neighbor lady he sees after his wife kicks him out of their house and starts divorce proceedings. Also, the movie opens with a Jewish ghost story set in Poland featuring a squabbling married couple.
(PaPa, H, B, O, LLL, VV, SS, NN, A, DD, MM) Strong mixed pagan worldview with pagan, humanist, biblical, Jewish, and moral elements clashing together as protagonist tries to find answers to a sudden onslaught of personal and family problems that leave him perplexed, but movie does include a positive Bar Mitzah/Torah scene, plus occult content in brief prologue story where a Jewish married couple has a visitor who may or may not be a ghost or a demon in a dead body; 25 obscenities (mostly “f” words with some “s” words and a few “a” words), two or three strong exclamatory profanities mentioning Jesus and one My God!; brief strong violence includes man is stabbed and a dream sequence where man is shot in forehead, plus bully runs after another boy; depicted fornication scene after man’s wife kicks him out of the house and starts divorce proceedings but scene appears to just be a fantasy and man watches neighbor woman sunbathe nude when he goes on the roof to fix his TV antenna, plus man’s wife announces she’s in love with another man and starts divorce proceedings after kicking husband out of house; upper female nudity in two scenes and upper male nudity in one scene; alcohol use; smoking and marijuana use; and, attempted bribery and extortion, poison pen letters from man’s rival puts his career at risk, wife in adulterous relationship kicks husband out of his house and starts divorce proceedings, boy listens to radio in class, man’s neurotic, somewhat absent-minded brother is arrested for exposing himself somehow to boys but brother denies it and situation is never resolved one way or another and is never shown, and woman in prologue story says God has cursed her and her husband and rest of movie implicitly questions whether or not God has cursed the movie’s sad-sack protagonist.
A SERIOUS MAN is a quirky comedy from the Coen Brothers. It focuses on Larry Gopnik, a Jewish university physics professor in 1967. Larry starts to take his family for granted. His son and daughter have discipline problems, his unemployed brother is sleeping on the couch, and an Asian graduate student is trying to bribe him to change his grade. Now, Larry’s pushy wife informs him that she is leaving him for a pompous older Jew. Larry tries to find clarity and comfort from the rabbis at his synagogue, while things go from bad to worse.
A SERIOUS MAN is good at bringing out the atmosphere of a bygone era in an American subculture – a Jewish community in Middle America before the Hippie Generation. None of the rabbis offers Larry much to help him, however. The elderly rabbi emeritus tells Larry’s son to “find someone to love” and “be a good boy.” This is good advice, but comes across rather trite in the movie. Also, the open-ended ending leaves viewers groping for guidance and insight. Ultimately, this droll, funny but sometimes lewd movie shows a lack of vision and theological/philosophical depth.