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Non-Review Review: A Serious Man

I can’t help but feel like I’m missing something with A Serious Man. I mean, I get it, it’s all pointless and we’re meant to be as unable to make sense of it all as the dentist who finds words on his goy‘s teeth or Larry Gopnik himself, but there’s something ultimately uncomfortable about the film’s reflexiveness. After all, the story filters tales through tales through tales, with a rabbi sharing a pointless story with Larry as he waits there for the rabbi to instill it with meaning, but can’t. The movie’s central thesis is that – assuming he exists – God is a sadistic and horrible creature for the way he arranges the world without meaning and seemingly to punish a man “trying to be a serious man”. Of course, whether or not God exists is a question for each individual to come to themselves, but the film draws attention to its nature as a narrative rather than a documentary – first through a random introductory film and then through a-story-within-a-story – which makes it clear that while the real world may or may not have an omnipotent creator, Larry’s world does. And you can’t help but feel, at the end of it, that the Coens are really just dicks.

Is it wrong that I was a little board?

Of course, I’m probably reading too much into it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling throughout the film that – as much as he searches for meaning – it isn’t the character’s job to find meaning, it’s the creator’s job to instill it. That’s why it’s hilarious when Rabbi Nachtner can’t explain meaning in his own story of concerned dentist – why tell a story if it has no point? The Coen brothers are “the creator” to Larry, and they are the storyteller as well, to us – sitting patiently in their office, watching and waiting for something. It’s hard not to leave feeling the same sort of frustration that Larry had – and while it’s amusing for us to watch him, it’s somewhat less amusing to be put through it ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s some good stuff happening here. There’s a nice wit, even if it isn’t as sharply observed as Fargo, The Big Lebowski or even Burn After Reading. I smiled repeatedly at the jokes and may even have laughed out loud once or twice. The movie smartly presents us with the moral dilemmas and uncertainties of its lead character, a man trying to live a good life, but stiffled at every turn. A man whose life (and even his lawn) is slowly being taken from him, chipped away by his students, or the people offering him tenure, or his cheating wife, or his demanding and selfish children.

I have to admit, I'm not feeling the man-love...

Larry tries to find meaning in maths, as much as he tries to find it in religion. Indeed, at least the numbers make sense. When a student explains that, though he does not grasp the maths, he understands the Schrodinger’s cat analogy (a story told to make the maths make sense), Larry is skeptical. “Even I don’t understand the dead cat!” he exclaims, “The math is how it really works.” The numbers turn out to be right – Larry’s brother Arthur is able to figure out probablity enough to be warned away from a local card game, for example – but what happens when the only thing that the numbers tell you is that you know nothing?

Maybe there’s a cultural divide going on here. The Coen brothers have, in fairness, conceded that the movie is a personal one – grounded in their own experience growing up as Jewish Americans. It’s quite possible that this doesn’t translate particularly well across the pond, and that a lot of it is lost in translation. I can recognise the allusions (to the tale of Job, for example), but maybe I’m just out of touch with the sense of humour, or don’t have the frame of reference for the jokes.

A Serious Man is a well made film, and one which is certainly dense and filled with ideas. However, it’s also exceedingly dark and black, and never really sure of whether it’s a story without a point or a story which has the point that there is no point – it can’t be both at once, after all. Although maybe that’s just me.

11 Responses

  1. The cat, that is the image of the cat and/or the tangible presentation of a conundrum, came before math, therefore, the math was invented to better explain the world around us.

    To be fair, I’m a Jewish suburban(ite), and even I didn’t really get a lot of the humor, which is aimed at the hardcore religious survivors of such a world more than anything. My grandparents ate it up.

    And if the whole summation of the movie must involve pointlessness, than I like to think that is the point.

    • Yep. I know, but if the movie is about pointlessness, it has a point and can’t be pointless itself. For me, the movie wasn’t sure if it wanted to be pointless or to be about pointlessness, if that makes sense.

  2. Not their best film by any stretch, but surprisingly it does a good job with the dark material its given.

    • In fairness, I liked Burn After Reading, so what do I know? It wasn’t bad – it just wasn’t necessarily good.

  3. I couldn’t stand this movie. Coen pretentiousness at its worst. I understand that filmmakers have the right to play God, but it’s uncalled for that the Coen brothers used that power to point their fingers and yell at us, “Haha! We’re smarter than you!”

    • What really got me was “we’re not only wasting our time, we’re wasting yours” attitude which underpinned the film. The Coen Brothers are the rabbi with the dentist story. And I think it’s fair for the audience to be as ticked off as the character.

  4. The first sentence summarizes my feeling about the movie as well. I felt you have to be Jewish to completely comprehend this movie which is a bit annoying. The characters were all unlikable and the main character is so passive it’s annoying!

    • I actually loved the “I haven’t done… anything!” line, but yes, it was just like there was a party I was invited to stand outside, listening to the laughter in the backyard and smelling the barbecue in the air, but just not “getting it”.

    • I happened to see it with a Jewish friend of mine, and thank God I did. Otherwise I wouldn’t have understood anything!

  5. If one lacks a basic understanding of the religious and cultural tenets of Judaism, you could make the case that they’ll have a tougher time with A Serious Man than those who do– though frankly I also consider that to be somewhat of a cop-out because the many trials of Larry Gopnik ground themselves in something much more universal than simply a Jewish experience. One does not need a Jewish education to process the cause and effect of one man’s action/inaction.

    In fact, the entire film arguably comes down to the most spelled-out part sequence, which would be the opening question of the Dybbuk. Is the rabbi a Dybbuk, or just a man? Does the supernatural take place in our world– is there a god, does he have a hand in the events of our lives, or do we live in a godless and totally amoral universe? I won’t say that the film makes itself very plain but I don’t think that you need anything more than a few people who have seen the movie to break it down and analyze it.

  6. Wow, good to see that other people thought this was over-rated! I just plain old didn’t get it, thought it was too grim, lacked any Jewish understanding of the themes and was so close to walking out half way though (following everyone else).

    Definitely a blot in their copy book, hope they don’t decide to get all Yiddish on us in the future!

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