When A Serious Man ended, the theater was silent for a good twenty seconds. I mean, it was a silence that would have been awkward…if it hadn’t been so deserved. The opening scene in this Coen Brother’s flick is randomly set in an undisclosed time in some snowy Jewish community. I say undisclosed, because there’s no actual date. You know that the dude in this opening scene was travelling by horse and the wife was cooking with fire, so that should give you some idea. The husband and wife have a little tiff about a soon-to-be-arriving guest. The wife thinks their guest died years ago; the husband says that isn’t possible, because he JUST TALKED to the guy. Unbeknownst to the audience, I think this scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie. You have to question: what is good; what is bad? Who deservers punishment; who deserves mercy? Is there good and bad? And does any of it matter anyway?
The viewer is then transported on a Jefferson Airplane. Well, at least the viewer starts hearing Jefferson Airplane, “Don’t You Want Somebody to Love.” In other words, you’re transported to 1967, America, where we’re introduced to our protagonist, Larry Gopnik. Larry is your basic nice guy. He has a wife. He has kids. He has a job. He has glasses. And he’s perpetually stepped on by those around him. He’s taken advantage of by everyone, from his wife who wants a divorce, his kids who don’t listen, to his neighbor who mysteriously always mows part of Larry’s yard, to his brother with no home and a draining neck cyst. Need I go on? I could. I mean, this guy is a living, breathing doormat, and yet, he’s endearing. You like Larry Gopnik. You want him to win. But of course, this is a Coen Brother’s movie. Therefore, you know the protagonist can’t win.
Personally, I’ve been following the Coen Brothers for years. YEARS. I’ve even rented movies they made before I was old enough to watch movies, okay? And I know they derive the majority of their laughs from a protagonist’s pain. Look at Barton Fink. Look at Fargo. Look at Raising Arizona. Just like all these others, in A Serious Man, we laugh at Larry’s awkwardness. We laugh at his misfortune. As his life devolves into that of a modern-day Biblical Job, we keep laughing, and it’s a Coen Brothers signature—they make audiences laugh at the terrible and unfortunate.
I can tell you they take this on a religious jaunt. Larry is, after all, Jewish. As things get worse and worse, everyone wants to know, “Did you go to the Rabbi?” As Larry’s son’s Bar Mizvah approaches, people continue to ask, “Did you go to the Rabbi?” Of course, being Jewish, yes, Larry goes to the Rabbi. He asks, “Why is this happening to me? What have I done wrong?” Does he get his answer? Well. I feel as if that would be giving too much away. I will tell you this: at the conclusion, when the theater went silent, after I finally got up and walked to the parking lot with my brother, after we started discussing the film, I realized we could have been talking about completely different movies. My brother—a self-admitted and respectable film buff—had missed what I felt was the cornerstone and reason for the existence of A Serious Man. And the TERROR underlying the message of this film.
If you want to go into this film with no idea how things will end up, stop reading. I just can’t help myself. I have to say more. In A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers do all they can to make you think that nothing has meaning. They make you believe that nothing happens for a reason—they make you think that everything, in fact, happens for no reason at all. However, blame it on my Christian upbringing… I feel like the conclusion of this movie was sneaky. I feel like the Coen Brothers bated their viewers with this idea of uncertainty and lack of reason so that they could fist your face in the last five seconds. I think this film proves that there is, in fact, reason. There is a God who still tests us, just like in the Old Testament. And, in the world of Joel and Ethan Coen, this God is still ANGRY like in the Old Testament. Maybe I’m wrong. You’ll have to see it and let me know. I’m just saying, A Serious Man—in its own screwed up Coen Bros. way—reminds us that life does have meaning. That we do have control over what happens to us. That we can make good and bad decisions, and that those decisions can have grand implications.
Or. Maybe it’s just a really funny, dark movie about nothing at all.