A Serious Man – 2009
I went into this Cohen Brothers movie without knowing much about it. A friend told me that it was a modern telling of the story of Job from the Bible, a story with which I am fairly familiar. After watching the film, I can say that there were similarities between the two narratives, but certain key components were left out of the film, leaving the connection a fairly vague one.
In the Bible story, there were reasons behind the tragedies which befell Job. They were designed to settle a bet between God and Satan concerning the strength of Job’s faith. He had everything taken from him, his possessions, his friends, his family, and his health. People try to convince him to curse God for all his misfortune, but he ignores their advice. In the end, Job’s faith in God proved to be steadfast, and he is rewarded with health, long life, earthly wealth, and happiness.
In the film, the struggles endured by Larry Gopnik, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, seemed to be random and meaningless, making him question his faith. His wife Judith, played by Sari Lennick, hits him from out of left field, telling him that she is having an affair with Sy Ableman, a widower played by Fred Melamed. Larry’s marijuana smoking son, Danny, played by Aaron Wolff, is weeks away from his Bar Mitzvah, and his daughter Sarah, played by Jessica McManus, just wants to wash her hair, something she cannot do while Larry’s live-in brother Arthur, played by Richard Kind, is in the bathroom draining his cyst all the time.
There was no mention of any contest between Good and Evil. There was no purpose behind any of the misfortunes that plagued Larry, or at least, if there was, the film failed to show the audience. In the end, Larry compromised the principles of his own faith-based moral code, even going so far as to smoke pot and dream about having sex with his neighbor’s racy wife, Vivienne, played by Amy Landecker. In a complete departure from the Bible story, Larry is not rewarded with long life, wealth, or happiness. In fact, it is heavily implied that his doctor has news of an impending terminal illness, and that Danny is about to be killed by a tornado.
It was a strange little film that almost seems to teach about the futility of faith in God. Be a good person, forgive your persecutors, and remain steadfast in your faith in the face of adversity, but don’t expect any kind of reward for your efforts. Larry is a good person. He is kind a gentle, and when his life starts to fall apart, it is easy to sympathize with him. Stuhlbarg did a good job.
But there were three things about the film that really stood out for me. The music, the time setting, and the aesthetic. First, the musical score was written by Carter Burwell. It had a kind of deep melancholy about it that was at times depressing, while at other times, calming. It really went a long way to set the tone of the film. In fact, the only prominently featured song in the film that was indicative of the 60’s is Somebody to Love by Jefferson Airplane. Second, the film took place in 1967. Most of the time when we think about the 60’s, we automatically jump to hippies, flower power, psychedelic fashions, and hallucinogenic drugs. But the little Jewish community had little to do with those things. Even so, this was a true side of the era that was still grounded in the styles and the mindset of the 50s. These were the squares, the suburban mid-westerners. In other words, normal people.
And finally, I have to mention the film’s non-sequitur opening sequence. It was an old Jewish folk tale, which was written by Joel and Ethan Cohen, the film’s writers and directors. Its dialogue was completely in Yiddish. It concerned a young couple in Eastern Europe who encounter a mysterious stranger whom the husband has invited home for some soup. When he tells his wife the man’s name, she becomes frightened because she knows the man who bore that name to be dead. She calls him a dybbuk, or a malicious ghost. She shocks her husband, and the stranger, when she stabs him in the heart. The mortally wounded man stumbles back out into the snow while the husband stares in disbelief.
There seems to be little reason why the movie is opened in such a way. By the Cohen Brother’s admission, the tale has nothing to do with the rest of the film. It was only there to… well, I’m not sure why, but the directors felt it was somehow appropriate. Another thing the Cohen Brothers say in interviews was that the film was originally supposed to be about Danny and his Bar Mitzvah, specifically about the mysterious old rabbi who gives each young boy personal advice, and his father Larry was supposed to be a secondary character, but as the script was being written, it evolved into what it is today. I think that is all for the best, although I suppose a humorous film about a boy’s preparation for the event, and the fact that he is completely stoned when it finally happens, could be amusing.