Let's get the important stuff out of the way. A Serious Man is good; but it ain't up there with Fargo and The Big Lebowski. It's right around No Country for Old Men. A solid three on the Coen brothers' pantheon of great movies.
That's not to say that this new movie will not become my most often-watched Coen brothers' film. How could it ever be otherwise? The movie captures in an inviting and wondrous way part of my own childhood. I was born the same year as Joel Coen in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. I attended and was bar mitzvahed in the very synagogue used in the movie for interior shots. I sat on the same Talmud Torah buses, and had the same teachers and principal in TT as they both did. So I will forever be captivated by this movie, insofar as it serves as that very rare public artifact that speaks intimately to my own life memories.
But beyond these unusual attachments, as a professor of Jewish Studies and as an occasional blog-only film critic, I want to say something more about the movie. This cinematic rendering of the biblical Book of Job has quite a bit to offer the film goer. This is not the first time the Coen brothers have tackled a Western classic by way of film: O Brother, Where art Thou? (2000) was a glorious retelling of Homer's The Odyssey, set in the 1930s. A Serious Man is a dark and playful representation on film of an infinitely more dark and playful God.
The opening quote from the medieval sage Rashi - "receive in simplicity everything that happens to you" (from his commentary to Deuteronomy 18:13) - is then followed by a 10-minute bubbeh maiseh (grandmother's tale), appropriately acted out in Yiddish with subtitles. Take that, Mel Gibson with your phony Aramaic dialogue! Here's the real deal - a chance for 3 fine Yiddish-speaking actors (Allan Lewis Rickman, Yelena Shmulenson, and the incomparable Fyvush Finkel) to ham it up, telling the tale of a dybbuk, a possessed spirit of the dead Reb Groshkover. To the horror of her husband, who doubts that Reb Groshkover is a dybbuk, a wife takes matters into her own hands and plants an icepick in the heart of Reb Groshkover. For a moment the wife is vindicated, as no blood emerges from the wound and the rabbi prattles on. But then the dybbuk (?) bleeds and weakens, he takes leave of the couple's house and stumbles off into the howling wind. The husband is convinced her wife has murdered a fellow Jew - "We are ruined...all is lost" - the wife looks out the open door into the wind and with equal conviction says: "Blessed is the Lord. Good riddance to all evil."
After the prologue's blackout, we are transported to the Upper Midwest to 1967, and to a collection of suburban Jews. We meet Professor Larry Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) and his family, and almost from the moment we are introduced to the players trouble ensues. Gopnik's wife and her lover seek to manipulate Gopnik into a divorce he doesn't want, despite his wife's infidelities. His career may be in shambles. His puss-bearing ne'er-do-well brother (played by Richard Kind) lives on the couch, and later in the motel room after he has been thrown out of the house, on the next bed over. Gopnik seeks out the wisdom of three wise men, three rabbis each more senior than the next. None provide solace, though one tells a fantastic extended Jewish story about magical teeth, all to serve up a classic Jewish joke.
The only bright spot in Gopnik's miserable life is his son Danny (Aaron Wolff), whose bar mitzvah ceremony provides the modern-day Job with a moment of contentment and nachas. While Gopnik himself receives no worthy answer from the three rabbis, the most senior of the rabbis has some bar mitzvah advice (drawn from the soundtrack's theme song) for Danny:
"When the truth is found. To be lies.
And all the hope within you dies....."
Things even look up for Gopnik when pressures at work begin to disappear. But God is testing Gopnik, and when the pressure becomes too great, and the debts too overwhelming, Gopnik snaps and in a moment of weakness commits a trespass against the norms he has set for himself in his desire to be a good (aka "serious") man. And with that, God indeed provides his dark and playful answer.
There are laugh-out-loud funny moments in the movie. When an older man lifts the Torah scroll in synagogue and wavers slightly under the load, he grimaces out a curse under his breath. A sacred space of Jewish ceremonialism in the heart of the Upper Midwest, and a congregation member - so thoroughly acculturated in the mannerisms of his good neighbors - blurts out the expletive of "Jesus Christ." Perfect.
The Jews of Minnesota - we might call them "the Chosen Frozen" - are people who try to do the right thing. They are haunted by their burdensome past, and by their sardonic God, and yet they try to methodically live out their lives as menschen. We were taught to "receive in simplicity all that happens to you." No one told us what to do or think "when the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope within you dies." The world is a bit more complex than the idyllic suburban lifestyle our parents tried to create for us in St. Louis Park, MN. Modeled on Norwegian and Lutheran values, suburban Minneapolis was a cheerful and simple place and time. But that fantasy world of idyllic Midwestern suburbs gave way to a complicated life of travail and compromise. Is it any surprise that the Coen brothers - masters of the jaundiced eye - would be any less relentless when engaging the story of Job and the God on high who plays darkly with his creatures below?