A Serious Man
Something is amiss when this strange movie begins with a quote from the medieval rabbi Rashi – receive with simplicity everything that happens to you, and a stranger parable set in an Eastern European Yiddish village about how a righteous person might be a ghost (I think!). Then there are the lyrics by the ’60 band Jefferson Airplane – when the truth is found to be lies / and all the joy within you dies / don’t you want somebody to love – that permeate the movie. A Serious Man, produced, directed, written and edited (under a pseudonym) by Joel and Ethan Coen is about a serious man Larry Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) who seeks to do right but is wronged.
In the fullness of time, his shalom of prairie existence in suburban Minnesota is vandalized by a gang of random circumstances. Slowly a series of existential inconveniences mutates into ontological miseries. One of his students protests a class grade and tries to bribe and sue him. His tenure committee receives anonymous malicious letters regarding his disqualification. A mail order music company harasses him for non payment. His unemployed and live-in brother slips down physical, mental and moral precipices. The bickering rivalry between his son and daughter irks him with daily distractions. His wife decides to leave him for a pompous older widower.
But unlike the story of the Biblical Job, we get no preface glimpse of why these wrongs happened to Mr. Gopnik. At least in first chapters of the book of Job, we are told that the horrific calamities came upon Job because there was a bet between God and the Adversary in heaven. In his travails, Mr. Gopnik is undeterred – he seeks the counsel of not one but three rabbis. First, his synagogue dumps a naïve junior rabbi on him. The young rabbi in earnest seeks to convince him that reality is a matter of perspective. Things aren’t bad if you frame it with imagination.
Then Mr. Gopnik sits before a second rabbi, respectable but pretentious. He tells a story of how a Jewish dentist encountered a kind of epiphany in the mouth of a Gentile patient. The dentist searched for meaning in futile agony. At last he went back to his mundane life of weekly golf with friends and daily meals with spouse. At wits end, Mr. Gopnik finally begs for the wisdom of an aged rabbi. But the eminent rabbi’s contemplative life is too busy to have time for him. Once again, his existential questions are left to himself, unanswered.
The movie is ubiquitously Jewish. Some of its cultural and religious references fly over this Gentile’s head. Yet the notion of God’s and life’s incomprehensibility strokes the ruffled perplexity in us all when we witness what seems to be senseless and random evil. More than a few times, Mr. Gopnik laments: I’ve tried to be a serious man. I’ve tried to do right. The incongruity of his desire for right and what ends up as unexplained wrong is troublesome in any thinking person of faith. But there are no answers, even to a person of faith.
The movie is also opaquely funny. A truism from the old Catskills vaudeville days may explain the movie’s humor. Many great comedians are Jewish because the Jewish people suffered so much in history. Mr. Gopnik laments again: Why does He (Hashem, Hebrew for ‘the name’ referring to God) fill us with questions if he doesn’t answer. Here I turn to the third book after Job in my bible. Maybe Ecclesiastes’s counsel is the wisest practice – at day’s end, there is one thing left to do: eat, drink and find happiness wherever we are and what ever we are doing.