A Serious Man Struggles with an Inscrutable God
- Monday, October 12, 2009
Such a confrontation may be in the offing in A Serious Man, although the film stops short of any Job-like resolution. Nevertheless, while other critics have described the finale as a cosmic joke or punch line, the Job parallel suggests something more direct and weighty.
As in other Coen films, God is somewhere in the mix in A Serious Man, but his will remains mysterious and inscrutable. We can laugh at it, or stand aghast at it, but we cannot fully know why God does what he does. (It's worth noting that unlike Job, who was blameless and upright [Job 1:1], Gopnik is a morally compromised character, and that the film's final images suggest that no one, no matter how earnest in their searching for God, can escape his judgment.)
The Coen brothers have said that they drew on their Jewish upbringing in writing A Serious Man, but the final result, while impressive in many ways, might have been even better had the filmmakers not at times made a joke of Gopnik's struggle. Just when the Coens appear finally ready to get serious about addressing the perplexing issues of faith in God, they treat religious authority figures, and religious ceremonies, as little more than opportunities for awkward pauses and nervous laughs. As far as a moral lesson to Gopnik's story, the best the film can offer up is a Jefferson Airplane song lyric:
When the truth is found to be lies
and all the joy within you dies
don't you want somebody to love
don't you need somebody to love
wouldn't you love somebody to love
you better find somebody to love.
To chuckle at the overexposed song is to miss a truth that Christians, if not the filmmakers themselves, should recognize: All the talk in A Serious Man about justice and meaning boils down to the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:36), on which all of the Law and Prophets hang (Matthew 22:40).
Larry Gopnik needs somebody to love. His wife and children have disappointed him. He's struggling to comprehend God's ways. The song is played for laughs in the movie, but the lyrics are spoken by the film's most authoritative character—underscoring that A Serious Man, like the Jefferson Airplane lyric, is a cry for something permanent and knowable when answers seem elusive.
Do the Coen brothers understand that? The brothers' treatment of religion has, until recently, been much more cultural than religious. With No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man, that balance may be shifting, but the humor has begun to feel superfluous to the moral issues at stake. There's a fine line between good-natured, nostalgic ribbing of religious rituals, and outright mockery (see Galatians 6:7). Rather than try to blur the distinction, the brothers would do well to stay far away from that line. Steering clear of it has served them well in the past, as it did in No Country for Old Men. Let's hope it serves them well many more times in years to come.
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- Language/Profanity: Lord's name taken in vain; multiple uses of the "f"-word; foul language includes "a--hole"; "ba—ard."
- Smoking/Drinking/Drugs: Marijuana smoked by students in several scenes, including at a bar mitzvah; drinking; a doctor smokes while advising a patient; a woman smokes a joint while having sex and sunbathing; pipe smoking.
- Sex/Nudity: A woman is shown sunbathing in the nude; a man and woman are shown having sex; a man is arrested for solicitation and sodomy, and a teenager, hearing the charge, asks his father, "What's sodomy?"
- Violence/Crime: A woman stabs a man with an ice pick; a student appears to offer a bribe to his professor; a dead deer is shown tied to a car; a man is repeatedly bashed against a wall; a man is shot.
- Marriage/Family: A woman seeks a divorce from her husband and has him meet with her lover to discuss living arrangements; the children are said to be aware of problems in their parents' marriage.
- Religion: A Jewish woman fears that she and her husband have been visited by a spirit; a man is counseled that "it's not always easy trying to figure out what God is trying to tell you"; a junior rabbi counsels a man to look for God in mundane things; a man's teeth reveal a message in Hebrew that reads, "help me, save me"; another rabbi counsels Larry that "we can't know everything" and that "God doesn't owe us anything"; Larry wonders why God "makes us feel the questions" for which he can find no answers; a man complains that God hasn't "given me s-it."
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