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A Serious Man Struggles with an Inscrutable God

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated Feb 11, 2010
<i>A Serious Man</i> Struggles with an Inscrutable God

DVD Release Date:  February 9, 2010
Theatrical Release Date:  October 9, 2009 (limited)
Rating:  R (for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  105 min.
Director:  Ethan and Joel Coen
Actors:  Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, Peter Breitmayer, David Kang, Alan Mandell, George Wyner, Amy Landecker, Fyvush Finkel

The films of Joel and Ethan Coen are, for the most part, engaging and clever, and at times, even profound. Their Oscar-winning Best Picture from 2007, an adaptation of novelist Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, was the brothers' most serious and somber film, and also one of their best.

It seriously wrestles with evil in the modern world—something that even the most impressive earlier Coen stories fail to engage with appropriate depth. For instance, the finale of the brothers' Barton Fink strongly points to a form of spiritual chaos at the heart of the story, but the film never offers a serious investigation of Fink's malaise. Instead, "the life of the mind" takes center stage, and enough oddball characters keep the story moving amusingly along, until a final, fiery encounter that forces Fink to confront the effects of his self-absorption.

A Serious Man, the new film written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is also about the life of the mind, but in this case, the mind of Larry Gopnik, the film's protagonist, is haunted by religious questions to which he seeks specific answers. The film is one of the Coens' finest efforts outside No Country for Old Men, explicitly addressing comparable religious questions and issues but adding a serious dose of the Coens' trademark humor. The story keeps viewers chuckling until the film's sudden, ominous conclusion.

Set in 1967, A Serious Man parallels the book of Job in many respects. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor, is beset by a series of misfortunes. His wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), announces her intention to divorce him and asks him to meet with her lover (Fred Melamed) to discuss living arrangements; a student (David Kang) with a failing grade appears to bribe the professor for a better grade; and Gopnik's tenure committee is evaluating several anonymous letters castigating his character.

His children, meanwhile, are alienated from their father, whose troubled brother Arthur (Richard Kind) may be on the verge of a breakthrough with—or a mental breakdown over—an obsessive project on which he's been working.

Faced with these mounting crises, Gopnik heeds the advice of a friend who tells him, "It's not always easy to figure out what God is trying to tell you," and  seeks counsel from three rabbis. These sessions are played for laughs, mostly, but the rabbis do speak truth to Gopnik. (It's not clear if the Coens recognize this, or find the rabbis' words worthy of snickers only.) A young assistant encourages the professor to see the world through new eyes and to recognize the divine in ordinary, mundane things like a parking lot. A second rabbi lets Gopnik know that answers to his questions aren't easy to pin down, and shouldn't be expected. "God doesn't owe us anything," he says, to which Gopnik responds, "Why does he make us feel the questions?"

Like Job, Gopnik is not satisfied with the answers he receives, but just when his problems appear to be at a point of resolution, the film's sudden, surprising conclusion brings us back to the climax of Job's persistent demand for an audience with God: "Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said: ‘Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.'" (Job 38:1-3)

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."