American film-makers have had a notoriously difficult time bringing Jewish stories to the screen. For decades, they kept mum on things Jewish for fear of losing the American mainstream. And when overt engagement with Jews and Judaism began tentatively to make it onto the screen in films by Woody Allen, Barbara Streisand, and Steven Spielberg, the result was a carnival of self-consciousness, self-deprecation, and schmaltz.
But in the last few years, there have been signs that Hollywood has finally begun to turn the corner on its Jewish question. And with the release of Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man, what seems to be Hollywood’s new opening to Jews and Judaism goes to an entirely new level. It’s a watershed event—perhaps the first time a really profound exploration of Judaism has been committed to film by first-string Hollywood directors. The result is easily one of the best Jewish films ever made, anywhere.
The film centers on Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor whose suburban life is going to pieces in a serious way. Larry’s wife informs him that she wants a divorce so she can marry their sleazy neighbor, the kids are experimenting with stealing and drugs, and the police are coming after his dissolute brother Arthur who’s sleeping on their couch. At the university, one of Larry’s students resorts to bribery and threatens legal action over a botched midterm, and an unknown persecutor has got the ear of the committee reviewing his tenure bid. When the lawyers start getting into the act, the bills pile up, and Larry lurches toward insolvency.
The opening scenes invoke Job, of course. An apparently decent guy suffers an unending series of bone-rattling personal defeats, seemingly without explanation. And as his troubles mount, Larry begins asking the kinds of questions that appear throughout the Bible on this score: Is there a God who’s trying to tell him something? Or is he really just the plaything of impersonal forces ruling an empty world? And if God really is trying to tell him something, how is he supposed to figure out what God is saying?
You could easily forget these questions are on the table because A Serious Man is also wicked sharp just as satire. The Coens’ art form is caricature, and like any superb cartoonist they deal in exaggerated sketches of real people (or real types). Here the pen-strokes are a facial expression, a hand-gesture, and a couple of sentences of dialogue, which often suffice for the Coens to penetrate straight to the heart of a given real-life persona. In this film, the Coens are at the top of their form, with nearly every scene dragging in yet another Jewish department chair, lawyer, doctor, dentist, rabbi, rabbi’s secretary, Hebrew-school teacher, school principal, and so on and on—every one extorting a laugh of shocked recognition from the audience as they careen into Larry’s life, and we suddenly realize we’ve met them before. And the detail work is so fine that even each of the 13-year-olds on the school bus seems to be a kid you knew in school. A Serious Man is as funny as movies get, and much better as a shakedown of the Jews and their foibles than Woody Allen ever was, even at his best. And unlike Woody Allen, when these guys take a swipe at the Jews, they actually know what they’re talking about.
But A Serious Man parts company with some of the Coens’ earlier films in that there’s nothing here that’s just about the gag. In fact, there’s hardly a scene that doesn’t also do double duty as an attempt to make progress on those biblical questions. The first thing you notice is that the dialogue is packed with lines that, while working flawlessly at the level of the plot, are also micro-articulations of substantive philosophical positions the characters are staking out. “Actions always have consequences,” Larry tells the Korean student who is trying to bribe him. “In this office, actions have consequences. Not just physics. Morally.” But the student, who’s just heard Larry lecture on Schrödinger’s cat, is insistent that Larry can’t know these things: “Mere surmises, sir,” he tells Larry. “Very uncertain.”
There it is: Is God running the show, or chance? Are there consequences, or only surmises? Is morality real, or is it just a pious Jewish fiction?
The Coens take it as an axiom that there’s a genuine ambiguity here that won’t be easily resolved. One of the best parts of the film is its opening aggada (rabbinic tale) about a young couple in a shtetl in Russia, presumably Larry’s grandparents or great-grandparents. The husband brings home his broken delivery wagon together with an unexpected dinner guest: An old hasid who helped him pull the wagon out of the snow, and whom his young wife knows to have been dead for three years. Is he a dybbuk (a demon), or has there been some ghastly mistake? The wife—uncannily chiseled out of a photograph of the young Golda Meyerson—considers a bit and then drives an ice-pick into the heart of her husband’s guest. Did she save them from ruin, or did she just murder a kind old man? The Coens don’t tell us, and the point is well taken. In some of the most important things, you just can’t know for sure. You only find out the truth later, if at all.
The ability to look at the same sequence of events and see them either as the hand of God, or, with equal plausibility, as arbitrary abuse at the hands of a meaningless universe, is central to the film, its philosophical ground-zero. From here, the Coens ask us to take on a couple of huge issues: Given the painful ambiguity of experience, is there any way Larry can get somewhere hacking away at these questions on his own? And is there any point in trying to approach Jewish tradition, or the rabbis who are supposed to be the keepers of its wisdom, for help?
Larry is, like his great-grandfather Velvel, a “rational man”. He’s this brilliant Jewish guy like many we’ve all met. He can do advanced mathematics off the top of his head at a chalkboard without checking the numbers. But like most really smart people, he’s completely unaware that he’s spent his whole life coasting, avoiding the hard parts. So when things start to go haywire and his wife tells him she’s leaving him, he’s completely unprepared. “What have I done?” he stammers out. And then he answers the question himself: “I haven’t done anything.”
The Coens clearly think a rocket scientist like Larry should be able to figure out that not doing anything is no way to keep your wife’s affections, or to win the respect of children and peers. And eventually, Larry does catch sight of this fact—sort of. In a crucial scene, Larry’s brother Arthur, who is about to be sent up the river by the vice squad, runs crying in his underwear from the motel room to which they’ve been exiled by Larry’s wife and the sleazy neighbor. Larry catches up to Arthur at the empty motel swimming pool, where Arthur cries out in agony: “Hashem didn’t give me s—! Hashem didn’t give me s—!” (Hashem is a particularly indirect and pious way of saying “God” in Hebrew.) Taken aback, Larry says: “It’s not fair to blame Hashem, Arthur. Sometimes you just have to help yourself.”
Larry doesn’t notice that he’s the one that really needs this advice. And he doesn’t do a thing to try and act on it, either. (That is, not until the final moments of the film). And this isn’t the only thing Larry doesn’t notice. His sufferings, he tells a friend, came on him “like a bolt from the blue.” But we know that isn’t exactly true. All through the film, the Coens drop clues that Larry’s troubles have been building up for years, only he was too slow or too much in denial to catch on. When Larry walks into a room to find his teen-aged daughter beating up on her younger brother, he knows enough to say, “What’s going on here?” But he never puts the pieces together. What’s going on here is that the money that’s been disappearing from his wallet has been causing ongoing friction as his children grab for it. Only Larry keeps coasting, too preoccupied and too passive to get to the bottom of what’s really happening.
Which takes us to the heart of the film. Larry actually isn’t much like Job at all: Job is presented as being unambiguously righteous. The terrible things that happen to him are presented as being completely arbitrary. And Job’s knowledge of his own situation is presented as being perfect, too. His view of what’s happening to him is crystal clear. Larry, on the other hand, isn’t unambiguously righteous. (He says he’s going to hand the envelope with the bribe money over to the discipline committee, and he even means to do it, but the envelope stays locked in his desk.) And he has a terrifically difficult time getting a clear view of what’s actually taking place around him. In this, the Coens are actually taking their cues from earlier biblical works like Exodus, Judges and Jeremiah, where hardly anyone is unambiguously righteous, including those who really want to be; and where a clear understanding in real-time of what’s actually going on is something rare indeed.
As it turns out, A Serious Man pivots on a question that is absent from Job but is absolutely central in Jeremiah: What does it take for a supposedly serious man— a seemingly able man who wants to do good—to open his eyes and recognize the consequences of his actions, unfolding right there in front of him? At first, we think it’s only the bad things that Larry misses or misunderstands. But as the film works towards its climax, the Coens test this question by turning the tables on Larry. We get to see a good old “act of God” as one of Larry’s tormentors is suddenly killed off. It really looks as though God may have decided to hear Larry’s anguished cries. And by my count, there are at least three more signs—little developments with his son, his wife, and the tenure committee—that Larry’s life is beginning to turn around.
Now that God seems to be making his move, the question isn’t really whether God is there anymore. The question is whether Larry is there. Is he capable of drawing strength from the assist he’s gotten and helping himself? Can he even seeGod’s assistance coming to him in the depths of the pit into which his enemies have cast him? Or will he fail to notice these signs too? God’s little attempt at a dialogue with Larry and what follows from it carry us down to the last amazing moments of this amazing film.
The bottom line is that the Coens, like the biblical texts themselves, are deeply skeptical about the chances of our figuring it all out on our own. We need some help. Can we get it from Jewish tradition? A Serious Man takes on this question in Larry’s encounters with each of three rabbis. The rabbis, too, are stunningly crafted caricatures—beginning with the eager-beaver assistant rabbi, who’s still high on his discovery that everything in life depends on your perspective; and on to the wise-cracking senior rabbi who’s in on the secret that really there are no answers; and from there to Marshak, the rabbi emeritus, who has reached death’s door in possession of all the wisdom mortal man can attain.
The portrait of Marshak, the third rabbi, is particularly stunning. Marshak is the Coens’ stand-in for God himself in the film. No one can get in to see him because he “doesn’t do pastoral work anymore.” Larry begs to see him but only catches a glimpse of him through the crack in a door. Only later do we get to see him in a brief exchange with Larry’s son Danny, in which we learn that Marshak is not only pretty close to all-knowing, but also beneficent. Danny, whom we’ve seen only as a cynical and contemptuous little creep, is transfixed. “Be a good boy,” Marshak says, and for one precious moment, we believe there’s a chance he will.
These interviews with the rabbis are super as satire. But if you look past the satire, it’s pretty obvious that all these rabbis are giving Larry real answers. The shift in perspective needed to see God’s hand in the world is an authentic prophetic theme treated time and again in the Midrash. And both the second rabbi and Marshak make it reasonably clear that the way to fight the despair of the pit is through doing good, through the commandments, which is the conclusion of Ecclesiastes. Yet Larry can’t get anything out of these rabbis. In part, this is because they’re just too ludicrous; and in part, it’s because Larry is too filled with self pity and contempt, and isn’t really listening to what they’re saying. Thus while the Coens leave us the possibility that Jewish tradition may really have something important to say, they’re also quite clear that Larry’s repeated attempts to engage this tradition give him nothing. He tries, but between the limitations of the rabbis and his own, it’s a data base he just can’t access.
What’s most difficult and devastating about A Serious Man is not the fact that there are no answers to Larry’s questions. We actually get quite a few answers in the course of this film: We get a clear view of Larry’s passivity, his self-absorption, his unwillingness to get to the bottom of unpleasant things. All these contribute to what happens to him in a pretty direct way. And when the heat gets turned up, he doesn’t succeed in rethinking his life, or in throwing some good works into the balance. Instead, his morals begin to go wobbly in ways that just make matters worse—like with that envelope. These aren’t complete answers as to why Larry is suffering, and they don’t give us an exact road-map of what God wants from him. But these partial answers go an awfully long way. The trouble is that Larry can’t see them at all. Only we can.
In this, the Coens’ message is starkly similar to that of the Bible, and especially that of Jeremiah. There are answers, if only partial ones. They’re really there. But recognizing them is hard.
In many ways, A Serious Man is a rejoinder to Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999), which explores many of the same themes of emptiness and dissolution in the life of a suburban American family. Unlike Mendes’ film, A Serious Man doesn’t force you to swallow the film-makers’ little sermons. And it doesn’t sell out to the nihilist temptation as American Beauty does. The world the Coens paint for us is plenty difficult. Yet there’s no appeal to the aesthetic as our last place of refuge, no over-the-counter Buddhism, no longings for an honorable escape in an unwished-for death. As befits a really fine Jewish film, A Serious Man takes the opposite road. It insists on the attempt to build up and hold on to a moral life, no matter how bad things get. Larry Gopnik isn’t who we want to be, nor is his Judaism what it could be. But in watching him strive to make such a life in the face of real hardship, we get to see what the glint of God’s will in this world might look like, and we can imagine ourselves striving, too, for a more righteous life, and perhaps doing a little better than he did.