A Serious Man
“Why does he make us feel the questions, if he's not gonna give us the answers?”
—Larry Gopnik, in A Serious Man
The Coen Brothers' most recent film overflows with questions. Where is Hashem in our hardships? What does it mean to live morally in the face of life's inevitable suffering and temptation? Do mystery and religious tradition still have a place in a world of reason and mathematics? Why does that Gentile have Hebrew letters inscribed on the back of his teeth?
Commencing with a Jewish folktale (again with the unanswered questions—did the wife in the prologue rightfully slay a dybbuk , or did she murder an elderly scholar seeking shelter on a wintry night?), A Serious Man then tells us the story of physics professor Larry Gopnik, living in a Jewish enclave of Minnesota in Spring 1967. An ordinarily passive man abruptly faced with multiple trials—the dissolution of his marriage, anonymous defamatory letters to his tenure committee, a sunbathing Bathsheba next door, his pot-smoking son's upcoming Bar Mitzvah, persistent phone calls from the Columbia Record Club—Gopnik seeks guidance from three rabbis. Alas, this trio proves as comforting and helpful as Job's counselors in days of old. As a result of (or perhaps despite) these three encounters, the professor starts examining his life and its underpinnings, maturing as a Jew and more closely approximating the serious man of the movie’s title.
In A Serious Man, Joel and Ethan Coen display many of their usual stylistic and narrative devices, including regional and cultural portraits that hover on the edge of caricature, bizarre dreams, brilliantly funny wordplay, mysterious parcels of money, and sudden shocking violence. In movies past, the Coens have subverted multiple classic film genres, including the Western (No Country for Old Men), film noir (The Big Lebowski), and the spy flick (Burn After Reading). All the while, they've posed weighty existential questions with a wink and a nod. With A Serious Man, they've given us a most memorable twenty-first century Jewish folktale. But like a Shul under the tutelage of an expert rabbi, we the viewers are left to decipher its meanings.
—Michelle R. King and Andrew Spitznas