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Film review: A Serious Man

serious_man_01(Film review of Joel and Ethan Coen’s recent movie, A Serious Man, by Brendan Staunton SJ.)

A Serious Man is a serious film, raising serious questions. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the innocent suffer? How discern a good from an evil spirit? If these issues remind you of Job in the Old Testament, you are spot-on. This film is The Book of Job, albeit set among a Jewish community in 1967 suburban Minnesota. It is even framed like a book, with a prologue, chapter headings and a symbolic ending.

Larry is an academic, a caring, conscientious and compassionate husband, father and brother, when suddenly, out of the blue, all sorts of misfortunes cross his path: his wife asks for a divorce; a student who has failed his exam tries to bribe him to cheat; his homeless brother is a domestic nuisance; his son is being hounded for a drug debt; an anonymous someone is sending slanderous letters to his college implying he is unsuitable for a permanent contract; a legal case he cannot afford, and all these trials get worse and worse, as cars crash, and dream sequences turn into nightmares, triggered by racist and drug addicted neighbours, and a friend who betrays him.

So what does Larry do? He consults three Rabbis, just as Job did. And like Job, none of the three can hear what he is trying to say. Their spiritual horizons, or ‘theologies’, assume that he is suffering because he has sinned! He is being punished by God. But this heady, book answer misses what Larry is experiencing, just as Job’s Counsellors give intellectual answers that miss the affective level of his spiritual pain.

Larry may be suffering, but he is not experiencing guilt: “I am not an evil man”. His question is not whether God exists or not, but is God alive? And if so, how does he speak? Where is God in all this Golgotha? “If God created us to ask such questions, surely it’s possible to find an answer?”

Do the Cohen brothers answer? No. The ending shows a hurricane on the horizon and school has to be abandoned. A key scene, which I won’t spoil for you, involves a case of conscience.

The last shot of Larry is answering a phone call from his doctor, who implies the results of tests we see him undergoing at the beginning are ominous. There is no light at the end of the traumas. When Larry succumbs to erasing an exam fail mark and replacing a minus with a plus, we see the sad fact that suffering is not always redemptive. In fact, financial facts corrode and corrupt. We are economically more determined than we think, the Coen brothers seem to be saying. So no contemporary answer to Job’s dilemma.

(In fact, the question The Book of Job was designed to explore still hadn’t found an answer hundreds of years later in the scene from John’s gospel, where the parents of the man born blind asked Jesus did this happen because of something they did wrong? This is by the way one of the funniest scenes in the whole New Testament, not noted for laughter, when the parents stand up to the stupidity of their superiors!)

This is a film that raises theological questions without offering any theology, apart from the bland and shallow ideas of the Rabbis. The third, the oldest and supposedly wisest Rabbi refuses to meet Larry because he is busy, “thinking”. The other two are prime examples of how not to listen to someone in distress. They moralise, collude, and talk about their own lives, tell irrelevant stories and their lack of the basic skills, let alone their faith, lead to some of the most hilarious scenes you are likely to see in any film in 2010* The laughter however is not in the Woody Allen, (another Jew) or Charlie Chaplin mode. It is hilarious but in a mocking mode. In fact, apart from Larry, everyone else is derisively dismissed as disreputable: families slurp soup; teachers bore; students bribe; lawyers overcharge; book clubs personnel are obnoxious on the phone; academic bosses are insensitive, naive and bungling communicators; neighbours are intrusive and don’t respect boundaries, friends betray.

But this too parallels the Book of Job where the supporting cast are out of their depth with Job’s new question: how can suffering be a punishment from God if you have done no wrong?

Cinematically, the funeral and Bar Mitzvah scenes are stunningly staged, and particularly witty is a blackboard illustration during a physics lecture. The acting is top-class from the young and old, and while there is little of a traditional plot, the story hangs together in a collage like structure that brings the drama alive. The characters may all be stereotypical, but the gradual decline of Larry’s spirit is strangely uplifting.

This is a film for a strong stomach, (the language is not biblical), a sorry tale of nobody coping well with “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.

Brendan Staunton SJ