A Serious Man

You read this one at your peril. Will Self's complaint that the Coens are simply mischievous formalists doesn't quite cut it here. If anything, A Serious Man gives some insight into why they are so difficult to pin down. This is a movie about a guy battered by the winds of fortune asking God that big question... why? And of course, there's no answer beyond the patronizing and pathetic "be a good boy". If life doesn't give you any answers, why should films?

So the gnomic folk-tale beginning plays hopeful reason against fearful superstition, but doesn't fall down on either side. Fast-forward to the present, Larry Gopnik is a physics professor that loves math but doesn't quite understand the fables used to explain it. Unfortunately, life isn't solved as easily as sums are: his wife wants a divorce, a student is trying to bribe (then sue) him, his neighbour is annexing bits of his lawn. Gopnik tries to stay on the straight and narrow as events overwhelm him. Should he do nothing, reacting passively to each new demand, as he always has done? Or should he take action, abandon categorical imperatives and bend with the winds of fortune? Cruel irony that the latter step summons the storms of infernal retribution. Gopnik is not as constant as Job, and so God exacts vengeance. Rightly? Or is adherence to ideals in this imperfect world complete madness? What does it mean to be a 'serious' man? No answers.


Except that maybe the identification of divine justice with a school bully you owe money to nails the masochism of dutiful living dead. My reading of the gnomic folk-tale is anti-miraculous (disciple of Hume that I am), although the "ghost"'s behaviour is certainly strange. The religious authorities that are appealed to do not provide satisfaction or solace: life's either full of unseen potential or a big joke. Larry's acquiescence is pushed to breaking point, and I get the feeling that the Coens want him to break... the rest of his family don't care for him, why should he? I definitely fall down on one side, and I'll risk presumption in suggesting that the Coens probably fall the same way, although they are pretty reticent about it.

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