A Serious Man (2009)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Run Time
1 hour and 45 minutes

VP Content Ratings


Rated R. Our contents ratings (0-10): Violence 1 ; Language 4; Sex/Nudity4. Running time: 1 hour 45 min.

Our star ratings (1-5): 4.5

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

            Job 2:1

Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?    Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

            Psalm 10:1

Larry Gopnik and his eccentric family.        (c) 2009 Focus Features

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen can always be counted on to deliver each year a film with provocative ideas. In Raising Arizona they presented us with two of society’s losers who try to become like other families by kidnapping a baby; in The Big Lebowski the world of slackers is dominated by the Dude; They provided a Southern fried version of Homer’s The Odyssey in their delightful O Brother, Where Art Thou. Who can forget Frances MacDormand’s underestimated law officer and William Stacey’s hapless villain in Fargo; or the lesson that the cop hero does not always get his man in No Country for Old Men? Indeed, their latest film, a black comedy, is almost as dark as the latter film. And it too, will become lodged in your memory with its unresolved questions, this film being for the Coen brothers what Crimes and Misdemeanors is for Woody Allen, a brave foray into the realm of theology raising the same questions that best the authors of Job and of Psalm 10. Like a modern day Job, Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is beset on all sides by troubles—his doctor is concerned and wants to run more tests on him. At his college he might not attain tenure because a failing student who had unsuccessfully tried to bribe him is sending anonymous messages denouncing him. When the chair of the faculty tenure committee peeks into Larry’s office to inform him on the “Q.T.” about this, he tells him not to worry about this, that he is sure the committee will not be swayed by the charge. Not to worry? Either the guy is naïve and dumb, or he is a sadist who loves to see another person squirm. He is as much help as one of the so-called comforters of Job! But these are just the beginning. Larry’s wife Judith (Sari Lennick) tells him she wants a divorce so she can marry Sy (Fred Melamed), a mutual friend. Sy has been leaving him messages at the office (along with a persistent bill collector from the Columbia Record Club) asking that they meet “to talk.” Apparently it is his relationship with Judith that is to be the subject. When the three do at last get together, Sy, like a smooth snake oil peddler, tries to ease Larry out of his house so that he can give up his apartment at a senior’s home and move in with Judith, and she wants their break-up to be reasonable so that she can obtain a ritual divorce and stay in good standing at their synagogue. Speaking of house, I have yet to mention good ole Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind), who sleeps on their couch because he has some kind of mental and health problems and occupies the one bathroom almost 24/7, much to the consternation of the rest of the family. Especially daughter who is saving her money in order to obtain a nose job so she will not look so ethnic. She in turn is constantly at war with 13 year-old Danny who has taken $20 of her money, and he gets in trouble at Hebrew school because he is caught listening to Jefferson Airplane (the time is the 1970s) on his pocket radio/recorder. He also lives in mortal fear that he will mess up his up-coming Bar Mitzvah. Oh yes, brother Arthur gets into deep trouble with the law, and there is also a hostile anti-Semitic next door neighbor who wants to claim part of Larry’s yard, and that Columbia Records Club rep, plus two layers whom he consults, both expensive, and– Larry seeks counsel from his rabbi, but the old man is too busy to see anyone, so the harried petitioner has to settle for a young assistant who seems more a student of pop psychology and self-help books than of the Torah. Then he goes to another rabbi, and when that encounter yields only what is supposedly a Middrash-type story about a dentist and a patient with “Help Me” engraved on his teeth, Larry can only ask in anguish why God gives us questions that have no answers. He almost gets to his knees to see the senior rabbi back at his own synagogue, and what an encounter that turns out to be, along with a later meeting between the cleric and Danny! Larry’s story is laced with a gallows-type humor, but he affirms to the rabbi that he is a serious man, trying to do good, and yet here he is beset with difficulties beyond his understanding or strength. As an Everyman, Larry asks those questions that we all ask sooner or later when faced with the absurdity and tragedy of events. This is a film that Federico Fellini would admire, I believe, because of the unresolved ending. In an interview the great Italian director said that he did not like films that ended with everything neatly tied together because that left the audience off the hook. They would think that the problems of the protagonists were not so difficult if all of them could be solved so easily. The Coen brothers’ film ends with lots of questions (very much like John Sayles’ Alaska-based tale Limbo), leaving the audience very much up in the air wrestling with the same questions that beset Larry—and Job. (You will see what I mean by this when you watch the very last scene.) This review with a set of discussion questions is in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Visual Parables.

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