A Serious Man

Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolf. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
Rated M (drug use, coarse language, violence and sexual references). 105 mins.

Some films can be very Catholic: signs of the cross, genuflections in church, statues, altar rails, candles, masses, communions and confessions. But, does everybody realise what these significant actions and symbols mean and does this confuse an audience or turn them off? Audiences with some Catholic background know or, at least, have a feel for what is going on. But, Catholics faced with Buddhist temples and statuary, bell ringing, prayer, shrines and rituals in a monastery, may take everything on faith and simply observe without really appreciating much of what is happening on the screen. And Hindu statues? Islamic mosques and quotations from the Quran?

These remarks are necessary before any review of the Coen Brothers latest film, A Serious Man. This is a very serious Jewish comedy. It is set in Minnesota in 1967. The Coens say that it reflects the atmosphere, characters and religious language and observance that they grew up with. I would like to think that I have some familiarity with matters and religion Jewish, but this film made me feel a real outsider looking in. Not without a great deal of interest – but I was glad of the glossary the production notes provided (which I read only after the screening). Since it is an intriguing film in its own way, perhaps I should go again.

This is a Coen Brothers' version of Jewish folk-storytelling. They even open the film with a shtetl (Eastern European village) tale of a husband and wife (spoken in Yiddish with English subtitles) and a discussion about seeing a friend – who died three years earlier. He appears at the door, a dybbuk (spirit). As a story it has nothing to do with the rest of the film in 1967. It is a storytelling appetiser. The whole film (which includes some stories like this opening one) unrolls in this vein – the film even ending in mid-exclamation mark!

One thing became clear very early on. This is a contemporary telling of the book of Job – although it lacks chapter 42 with its two resolutions (the affirmation of faith in an omnipotent Hashem (the Name, God) and Job being rewarded abundantly for his fidelity). As a tornado looms at the end of the film, maybe Hashem will speak, as he does in the biblical book, out of the storm. Unless the Coens make a sequel or offer some observation on their commentary for the DVD, we will never know.
So, who is the serious man? He is Larry Gopnik, a physics professor who loves his subject as well as math equations and is being considered for tenure at his college.

So far, so good. He has a wife and two children – but she is dissatisfied and is falling in love with a neighbouring widower and the daughter is always washing her hair and stealing her father's money for a nose job while the son is ultra-demanding of his father to adjust the TV antenna so that he can see F Troop clearly (he is also going to Jewish school and preparing for his Bar Mitzvah). As played by Michael Stuhlbarg, Larry is an ordinary Everyman/Job character, ever more put upon by family, friends, a student who offers a bribe, his older unemployed brother (Richard Kind) with a suppurating cebacious cyst, a provocative, sexy neighbour, and a car accident, and huge bills, and having to move out to a motel and... and... and...

The chapters of the film are headed by the names of the rabbis that Larry tries to see to get advice from (in between seeing divorce lawyers, property lawyers, criminal lawyers and his son's Bar Mitzvah and an unexpected funeral as well as some very vivid nightmares). George Wyner steals his scenes as the second rabbi with his Jewish stories and his excellent time, especially the story about a dentist who finds a message in Hebrew on the back of a goy's (gentile's) teeth.

This, I hope, gives some impression of how the film works. You will either be fascinated, as an insider or as an outsider by this unfamiliar Jewish American world mazel tov (congratulations), or you will feel you have strayed into a strange community and have the urge to stray out again or make a beeline for the exit.

UIP  Out November 19

Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


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