It’s hard to talk about the Coen brothers’ most spiritual film, because in one way or another, whether clothed in humor or extreme violence, all of their films speak to the spiritual. However, their most recent film, A Serious Man, might be their most explicitly spiritual in that the lead character undertakes something of a quest to find spiritual and theological answers to a series of trial and tribulations that beset him.
A Serious Man tells the story of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a middle-aged Jewish man with a wife and two children in suburban Minneapolis. He is a college physics professor on the verge of tenure. Out of nowhere, his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) demands a divorce. She argues that they have grown apart and that she has fallen in love with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Of course, given Larry’s luck, he is forced to move into a local motel, taking his mentally challenged/genius (?) brother, Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind), with him. His teenage children are indifferent to either his presence or his absence (his son simply wants him to attend to the aerial TV antenna so his programs come in clearly). On top of all this, he is pressured at work by a Korean student who is trying to bribe him for a better grade and with whom he can barely communicate. In the midst of all this, his wife, lawyer, and nearly every acquaintance tell him to “go see the rabbi.” He hopes to see Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell), a wise old rabbi. However, he must first endure two more junior rabbis, Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg) and Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner).
There’s so much potential for theological and spiritual discussion here. One can simply begin by asking where God is in the midst of this story as Larry frequently does. We can ask why God causes, allows, or is indifferent to Larry’s suffering (the Coen’s hint at a possible family curse brought on by Larry’s ancestors in the prologue). We can then turn to the responses of the rabbis to Larry’s questions. The first, most junior rabbi, Rabbi Scott, claims that Larry simply needs to look at his troubles from a fresh perspective to see God at work in his life. The second, Rabbi Nachtner, tells a story that may or may not have a point or really be relevant to Larry’s experiences at all. Larry is forced to ask, “Why does God let us feel the questions without experiencing the answers?”
It would be interesting to know how much attention the Coen brothers paid to the Hebrew scriptures of Job and Lamentations because their film has many parallels to them. Larry’s sufferings aren’t as severe as Job’s but the great sufferer certainly comes to mind in this Jewish context. The structure of their film parallels Lamentations as the book is a series of questions to God about how long suffering will last. The book concludes without hope or resolution, but simply a question and a troubling thought: “Why do You forget us forever, forsake us so long? Restore us to You, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old. For if You have utterly rejected us, You have [already] been exceedingly wroth against us.” Similarly, A Serious Man ends without resolution and with little hope. In fact, more darkness and destruction lies on the horizon.
While I can’t say that this is the most entertaining Coen brothers film or my favorite, in writing this review, I find that I have given more thought and reflection to A Serious Man than any of their other films, save No Country for Old Men perhaps. Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance is certainly one of the film’s high points and, in a year of depleted performances, could be an early front-runner for awards nominations.