Grounded in the storyline of the book of Job, A Serious Man tells the story of a dysfunctional Jewish family as their father, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), moves through a series of misfortunes: divorce, infidelity, defacement, bribery, blackmail, rebellious teenagers, car accidents, problems at work, and bankruptcy. Friends offer totally helpless, irrelevant advice and beg him to see the rabbi (whose wisdom doesn’t fare much better), while Larry desperately tries to get his feet back on some solid ground. Just as hope begins to emerge, a massive tornado looms on the horizon, moving in to destroy the life of the entire town.
This is a quirky film by the Cohen Brothers, one of ten Best Picture nominations in 2010. Slow-paced and almost tedious, it speaks to the absurd and arbitrary nature of misfortune, highlighting the inability and failure of each character to participate in it. There is no mourning, no comforting, no suffering. But it is painful. The blindness of the characters is blatant and shameful as you find yourself in the midst of their selfish, compassionless tactics and empty words of counsel. And in the end, it doesn’t seem to matter because nature determines everyone’s fate as equal.
While bleak, if you’re willing to see beyond the film’s obtuse awkwardness, you’ll discover a man struggling with the reality that everything he thought was one way turns out to be another. Is this not the quintessential experience of being human? Larry confronts this reality with the following (good) questions:
What have I done?
What’s going on?
What was my life before?
How does God speak to us?
What does it mean?
Where’s the answer?
Or is there even a question?
Why does he make us feel the questions if he doesn’t give us any answers?
What emerges is a picture of life that is question building; a picture of questions creating and binding relationships, movement, and growth. With the right eyes, the film says that to be human is to ask these questions. To suffer is to ask questions. To sit with those who are suffering is to ask questions. Even, and especially, when the answer is silence. A Serious Man teaches us to be molded by these questions – a process that may feel like punishment, but is perhaps our only means of truly becoming human.
Extra Credit- The film opens with a very interesting introductory short: a story before the story. I’d suggest re-watching the beginning after the credits roll.