A Serious Man (2009)


A Serious Man is a dark comedy without the traditional violence of other Cohen Brother movies. I believe I might have understood (and therefore enjoyed) the movie more if I was more familiar with Jewish culture. I could identify with the middle-class/suburban part of it well enough.

I am not sur where this movie fits in with the rest of their films. It probably comes closest to Intolerable Cruelty and Ladykillers…in that vein. They are very careful to get the time period and characters authentic. The characters are not over-the-top quirky…more “middle-class” quirky. This is lovingly poking fun the Cohen way, with a little underlying flavor of subversiveness.


Dir. Coen Brothers

I’d definitely recommend–maybe even highly recommend–this to Chris, Kevin, Tony (can’t remember if Tony saw this) and John. This is not the type of movie Gregg would like, but I’m recommending this to him. I’d also recommend this to Mitchell and Joel; maybe Marc and Jill, too (I would have recommended this to Penny, although I know she saw it and gave a lukewarm reaction to it–which surprises me a little.) It’s a toss up with Don. He could possibly like it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t. I think Larri would just think this is OK. I liked this a lot, and it is definitely one of my favorite 2009 films.

People have pointed out that this is a retelling of the Job story, and I guess that’s a pretty good description of the film. Larry Gopnik is a physics professor and his world is crumbling around him. He seeks the counsel of rabbis to make sense of these things.

The dark humor worked for me, and the film’s thoughtful treatment of some of the theological issues surprised me.

I don’t think I’ve seen a film that has dealt with theological issues that was equally funny and profound. (I’ll try to give some examples later.) Going to this film, a friend of mine commented about the three visits to rabbis being three sections of the film dealing with theological issues. I’m going to interpret these three sections and then give some a general interpretation of the film.


Each of the rabbi ostensibly addresses the problem of suffering in the world. (Btw, there is definitely parallels to the book of Job. The film is partially divided into three encounters with three different rabbis. Job also has three dialogue sections. Unfortunately, I’m not familar enough with those sections to notice any substantive connection.) If God exists and He is omnipotent and loving, why do bad things happen to people? What is God telling us in these misfortunes…what is He saying to us, period?

The first rabbi seems to represent the approach that if you alter your perception on a problem–e.g. have a more positive outlook, or just see things with a “fresh set of eyes,” problems will somehow make sense or at least you’ll be better able to deal with the problems. This pat answer dismisses the difficulty of the problem and really doesn’t provide any useful approach to dealing with the issue.

With the second rabbi, the film seeks to address the specific problem understanding events in terms of the way God is speaking to us. Basically, the rabbi doesn’t offer any answers, but his approach, sort of dismisses the needs to understand the mystery by suggesting that need to find answers is only a passing fancy that will soon disappear.

The third rabbi represents God imo. Let’s go over the entire scene. It begins with Danny walking into Marshak’s (the third rabbi) office, which is preceded by a long room filled with different knickknacks–among them a set of teeth, which, to me, alludes to the message on the Goy’s teeth, which in turn suggests the idea that Marshak represents God. Other items reinforce this view–e.g., a picture of insects (locusts, perhaps?) and a famous painting of Abraham sacrificing Isaac.

When Danny sits down in front of Marshak, this is what Marshak says, “When the truth is found to be lies. When all hope within you dies…Den vat?…Grace Slick, Marty Balin, Paul Kanter and Jorma….(Danny whispers Kaukonen) something or other….These are the members of the de Airoplane.” (Danny nods, with a subtle smile). Marshak then takes out the radio which Danny couldn’t find (even after breaking into the Hebrew school master’s desk) and slides it over to Danny. Danny is pleased. Marshak says, “Be a good boy.”

This is one of the examples of (profane) humor and profundity that I mentioned earlier—profane because the filmmakers are making these kinds of jokes on such a serious subject. (Plus, profane and profundity sound good. :). The quote from Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” fits perfectly with the movie and yet it’s funny in this context. At the same time, Marshak’s response to his own question actually suggests a serious–and somewhat satisfying–response to the problem of evil. What is the response? For one thing, Marshak’s words suggest that he (God) is very aware of the details in one’s life. God is not unaware of our problems, even the one’s that seem pretty insignificant (e.g., losing a radio, the fact that one loves a particular rock group, etc.)For another thing, when Marshak gives back the radio, it’s a small blessing. Danny not only wants his radio back, but he needs the twenty dollars wedged in the case to pay someone back (someone who wants to beat him up to boot). To me, this says that God is interested in our lives, knows what’s going on—down to the smallest details—and that he cares about us; that he wants to do good things for us. Finally, he wants us to be good, to do good in the world. This last line harkens back to Notchner’s remark about helping others: “It can’t hurt,” and his remark that God doesn’t owe us anything; rather we owe Him something. All of these things, while funny and amusing in the context of the scene are also profound statements and a fairly good answer to the questions posed by the film. Much credit should go to the film for not providing specific answers to these questions because a fully satisfying answer doesn’t exist. The “response” in the Marshak scene is about the best one can hope for. And I would argue that for the believer it is fairly satisfying.

So what about the ending? Prior to the last scene, good things seem headed for Larry and his family. They all experienced the beautiful bar-mitvah, and there’s a hint that Larry’s marriage might be on the mend. Larry’s tenure also seems imminent. Everything is looking up, until the phone call Larry receives which probably means he contracted some serious illness and the oncoming tornado about to hit Danny and his classmates at Hebrew school.

So what is the meaning of the ending? First, I think the film wants to avoid any easy answers; it wants to remind the audience that life is filled with good and bad; that there are no easy answers to the problems the film raises. In a way the ending restores balance with the good things that just preceded it. More importantly, it maintains the mystery of life and of God. All the problems that Larry faced haven’t disappeared–and there might be more on the way!

Second, in some ways, I feel like the ending is a challenge to believers. God may give you blessings, but some disaster or hardship is often waiting right around the corner. Can one’s faith continue in such a situation? Is Marshak’s (God’s) response sufficient? In my view, the sufficiency of the response depends on the faith of the individual. This alludes back to the vignette at the beginning of the story. The woman, imo, represents faith (which isn’t rational) as a way of dealing with the mysteries of life. The husband represents the rational response. We don’t know if the man at the door is an evil spirit or not. There is no way to tell, but faith can help guide us when facing life’s mysteries. (Again, we don’t know if she makes the right choice, but that is often the case with matters of faith. We are often unsure if an action made in faith is “correct” or “right.”)

I want to make a few more comments before I close. First of all, I want to address what the film is about. As I said, the film is about some of the most difficult theological questions we face in the world, and it provides a response—not necessarily an answer—to these questions. The response is something funny that one of the characters says, namely “accept the mystery.” This is another one of those comical and profound moments in the film. The quote attributed to Rashi at the beginning of the film also suggests this interpretation: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”

(Note: After I wrote the above I came across some other interpretations of the film–-interpretations that seem more compelling in some ways than the one I had; I felt pretty deflated afterward. Indeed, I planned to rewrite my review, but after reading the following interpretations, I lost all motivation; I got knocked out. Here are some of the comments:

Russell Wyner said, “So what’s the moral? If you want to be happy, don’t take life so serious.”

David Lincoln Brooks said, “The ending is clear: The movie is the Biblical story of Job, re-written for 1967 in Goffin/King’s “Pleasant Valley Sunday” land. The implication is a grimly funny one: no matter how bad things get, they can ALWAYS get worse. It’s a wry discussion of what it means to be Jewish… They may be the Chosen People, but…. chosen for what? To suffer constantly? The tornado comes right after Danny Gopnik has been bar-mitzvah’d into the faith. The Coens are definitely making a bitter joke about what it means to be Jewish. No matter what Rabbis say to try to make life better, there’s no cure for cancer, death and taxes. Much of life… has to be borne. And many of life’s ills are not invited, earned, deserved.

(Edited 2/17/2012)

1 Response to “A Serious Man (2009)”

  1. Reid

    Up for Kevin.

    If anyone wants to see this, I’d love to watch this again.

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