A Serious Man
The latest film by the Oscar winning Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan (Fargo, No Country for Old Men) is the story of Larry, a middle age Jewish mathematics professor, living a suburban life in Minnesota in the 1960’s with his wife, uncle, and two children. Nothing is going right for poor Larry: his wife announces she loves another man, his uncle is constantly in trouble, a student threatens to sue him over a grade, and his son steals money from his wallet. Larry goes to not one, but three rabbis for spiritual guidance! He laments: “Why is God doing this to me? I haven’t done anything!”
I was looking forward to this critically acclaimed film. After all, it is a film about faith and doubt, right up my alley! Unfortunately, I found A Serious Man to be a disappointment. I applaud the Coens for wrestling with religious issues. That’s a rarity in contemporary films. However, the characters are unsympathetic. The screenplay heaps misery after misery upon poor Larry, who begins to look like a modern day Job. Yes, there is a bit of wry humor throughout, but not enough to help.
I could have endured all this, had there been some kind of resolution to Larry’s questions of faith and suffering. Who among us hasn’t asked, “Why is all this happening to me? I’ve tried to live a good life and not harm anyone!” Certainly a Hollywood-style happy ending would not work here. It would be too trite.
But what is the point of this exercise? I think the Coens want to say that ultimately there is no answer. The rabbis, men of faith, have little to say to Larry, so desperate for meaning.
Near the end of the film, Larry’s son Danny makes his bar mitzvah. Unexpectedly, the scene is played straight, without sarcasm. Larry and his wife proudly hold hands. The congregation holds its breath, waiting for Danny to read the Hebrew scroll. He completes his task, and, for a moment, everyone beams. For the moment, troubles are forgotten.
The next day, Larry’s messy life returns. Faith doesn’t take away the struggles, and hard times, but helps us endure. Religious moments, like the bar mitzvah, keep us hopeful, and give us strength to endure.
I wish the rest of the film was as good as the bar mitzvah. The film opens with a brief incomprehensible fable, set in Eastern Europe. As with No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man comes to a screeching halt with no resolution. No, I don’t expect all lose ends to be neatly tied. Biblical parables and all great stories are open to interpretation. Despite its attempt to deal with faith, A Serious Man lacks the depth and character to be memorable. That’s a shame.
Tom Condon, OP