A Serious Man


(from movie trailer, various voices): I’ve tried to be a serious man. We’re going to be fine. I’ve tried to do right, be a member of the community. Please just tell him I need help.

KIM LAWTON, correspondent: “A Serious Man” is a dark comedy that asks some universally serious questions.

CATHLEEN FALSANI (Author, The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers): Why do we suffer? If God is there and God is a good God, why do bad things happen to decent people? I don’t care what flavor of spiritual person you are, or if you are a person of faith or not, there is no real good satisfactory answer to that.

LAWTON: Religion columnist Cathleen Falsani is author of The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers. She says the brothers’ newest film grapples with those theological questions in unexpected—and yes, quirky—ways.

FALSANI: It’s a powerful film, but it’s a powerfully funny film as well, and in the Coens’ 25 years of filmmaking, it’s often their funniest films that are in some ways the darkest, the most serious spiritually.

postb-seriousman(from movie): Honey, I think it’s time we started talking about a divorce.

LAWTON: Set in 1967, the story centers around a Jewish physics professor, Larry Gopnick, who experiences a Job-like set of personal and professional calamities. He looks to his faith to make sense of it all.

(Larry Gopnick, from movie): Please, I need help. I’ve already talked to the other rabbis. I’ve had quite a bit of tzurus lately. Marital problems, professional, you name it. This is not a frivolous request.

LAWTON: He doesn’t find any easy answers.

(dialogue from movie): Rabbi’s secretary: The rabbi is busy. Larry Gopnick: He didn’t look busy. Secretary: He’s thinking.

FALSANI: To their credit, the rabbis in the film don’t really try to give an answer. I think they kind of encourage the wrestling out of the answer, which is, in fact, in my estimation, to continue to live your life.

LAWTON: The film is full of Jewish motifs. It’s set in a community outside Minneapolis, where the Coen brothers themselves grew up in the 1960s. They say with “A Serious Man” they wanted to explore what they call “the whole Jewish Midwestern thing.”

ETHAN COEN (filmmaker): The whole incongruity of Jews in the Midwest, Jews on the plains. It’s just—it’s odd, and that incongruity is something that we kind of wanted to get across, too. It’s its own strange subculture.

Ethan and Joel Coen

LAWTON: They acknowledge nervousness among some Jews about how the film may come across.

ETHAN COEN: People were really supportive in the Jewish community especially, but you know, occasionally people would ask, you’re not making fun of the Jews, are you? This really deep Jewish thing where, you know, is this good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?

LAWTON: Like Larry’s son, Danny, the Coen brothers went to Hebrew school and were bar mitzvahed. They’ve indicated that faith no longer plays a central role in their lives, but they are notoriously reticent to discuss their personal beliefs or the messages in their 14 films.

FALSANI: They don’t say a lot about what they believe or don’t, but their movies are filled with theological and metaphysical and existential questions.

LAWTON: Falsani admits those themes may not always be obvious in what she calls “the Coeniverse”—the enigmatic and sometimes violent worlds the Coens have created.

FALSANI: I think there is a moral order to the Coeniverse, if you will. It might not be the moral order we were hoping for, but it’s there.

LAWTON: “A Serious Man” may be more overt than other Coen films in its religious exploration, but it is no more obvious in its conclusions. Still, Falsani says, in true Coenesque fashion, meaning can come by simply raising the questions.

(Larry Gopnick, from movie): I need help.

I’m Kim Lawton reporting.

  • Jan Yeap

    Call this film, if you wish, the Coen Brother’s self-examination of faith (through their Job-like character) vs. myths added to faith (like the rumor of the wife Yiddish peasant’s wife), or a film to remind us of God’s response to Job with “Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” or “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”, it still is a masterpiece that makes us, if we believe in God and Creation, think and question our own faith (whatever they are) to make us wonder why we should fear words, not created by God. Besides, we can’t control God’s Will – as the final scenes seem to say, nor can we make ourselves be placed under fear through confusion or superstitions like the Dentist or the Yiddish peasants. Moreover, no matter how isolated we tend to shelter ourselves, we still can’t stop outside influences from some of us, like Larry Gopnik’s son, Danny. So why not live out the lives, granted by God, and “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you” as the film tries to tell us at its beginning!

    I love this film a LOT!

  • Dale Reynolds

    As a non-Jew, non-religious actor/producer, I wasn’t sure how much I was enjoying the film, until the end, when I went, “Oh, yeah, I get this…”. The Brer Coen have fashioned an extraordinary examination, without judgement, of Jewish guilt, cynicism and dark philosophies. It’s black humor illustrates how often Hollywood makes idiotic films which pretend to answer the greater questions, while tacking on heart-warming, untruthful endings. Bless the Coens for their intelligence and their willingness to take risks by allowing us to go to dark places with no false hopes. Truly a must-see film for those who welcome questions-without-answers. Beautifully acted by a cast of mostly uknowns to the general public. Great work in this. And it’s very funny.

  • Miha Ahronovitz

    Not sure this is movie only for those who seek questions-without-answers. Everyone seeks an answer. In the modern society, the Jewish traditional acceptance of our incapacity to understand what Gd decides, the Jewish doubt, seems to have disappeared. As Liel Leibovitz said in his review in Tablet magazine, we forgot to receive simply the things that come to our life. How important is it? Let’s take George Soros, the antidote of the optimistic businessman. He wakes up in the morning and says: “We are human. we make mistakes. Let’s see who made a mistake today?” He became a billionaire with this philosophy.

    Somewhere in the movie, during the Barmitzvah, someone says “the Lamed-Vavniks”. I wonder how many people in the audience get this. Lamed Vav is the number 36 in Hebrew. According to a Hasidic tradition, Gd sent 36 angels to protect us and we do not know where they hide. Every person we know could be a lamed vavnik, with no exception. We need to look in every human being we meet, it does not matter the race or religions, whether there is or there is not a lamed vavnik inside. We must look carefully and not .any person, however humble. It is this hope, that keeps us going while we travel the fragile suspended bridge over the precipice

    Rabbi Nachman said we must live the today. In here now is “Rega.. “Ragua” means calm , relaxed. We should seek the calm by living today not the tomorrow or yesterday. The highest Sefira is called Keter, the Crown is the source all potentiality. If we are tense, we clog the vessel that brings us the divine light and protection. We need to be next toa Tzadik, a wise man to be calm. We must hear a Tzadik’s sigh. The sigh protects us.

    In the movie, the rabbi’s are inaccessible and act like bureaucrats in a club, imparting wisdom by saying platitudes (Gd is everywhere!) or just giving awards at Bar Mitzvah’s . The movie is set in 1967. Today they probably refer you to a web site. We have no protecting “sighs” The Tzadik Rabbis will come back. “A serious man” is the proof