Discover more from Movie Night
A Serious Man
The Coen Brothers’ greatest film
A Serious Man (2009) is the cinematic acme of the Coen Brothers’ careers as writers and directors thus far. Joel and Ethan Coen, who you probably know from countless other films that will be rewatched by many for years, wrote and directed Fargo (1996), No Country for Old Men (2007), and The Big Lebowski (1997).
A summary of the plot:
It is 1967, and Larry Gopnik, a physics professor at a quiet Midwestern university, has just been informed by his wife, Judith, that she is leaving him. She has fallen in love with one of his more pompous acquaintances Sy Ableman.
This is the least of Larry’s problems in this modern retelling of the story of Job. The film is a masterstroke because when we take a story like Job’s and remove it from the immediate context of the bible and place it into a more relatable setting, we grapple with the strangeness of such events but also the newfound familiarity of the nature of things going spectacularly wrong. This is a film for anyone who has ever asked: Why is this happening? Or, if there is a God, why would they do this? There are plenty of biblical adaptations out there, but few pack the same punch as the Coen brothers when they bring to bear the homespun storytelling they’ve been honing all their careers.
Take, for example, a scene in which a student at a Minneapolis college is attempting to bribe Gopnik, his professor, with cash in exchange for better grades. This scene is played straight. Cameras stay fixed in place. The frame trades between teacher and student. When Gopnik rejects the student’s cash offer, the student pivots to a new tactic; blackmailing Gopnik for being involved with potential bribery. It’s such a simple and effective comedic bit, played for no laughs and filmed with stylish restraint, which makes it all the more effective and “Coen-esque.” Nobody writes and shoots scenes like this today.
Many of the scenes in this movie feel as if the Coens could expand them into their own feature-length films. A faceless school bully. An ancient rabbi in the distance. A young rabbi looking for God in the parking lot. A neighborly tryst. Being comforted by the man causing your pain. They are entirely entertaining on their own but puzzlingly (in a good way) edited into the quilt that is A Serious Man. Haunting imagery dances with sparse and pithy dialogue. It all adds up to something, but the more one tries to define it, the harder it becomes to define. I’ll be revisiting this story regularly in my attempts to understand the point of it all.
The film opens with an actual short of sorts, the story of a dybbuk in the home of a Jewish family. It’s mystifying. It’s unnerving. I imagine this kind of story being told to the Coens as young children. It haunts them. It’s turned over and over in their minds in an attempt to unravel the meaning and understand. I imagine this movie couldn’t have been made without including this old-country fable to set the table. The Coen brothers have paid the unnerving nature of life forward with A Serious Man, a story that will stay with you forever, whether you want it to or not.
A Serious Man
Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
English, Yiddish, and Hebrew
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
This December, we’ll hone in on Jewish cinema to close out 2022, a year in which Jewish culture is in the spotlight for some troubling reasons. Growing up in Indiana didn’t afford me many opportunities to experience culture outside of farming and football. Lucky for me, my parents ensured I was exposed to things outside of Indiana. Books and movies were the primary means of my understanding that the universe didn’t end at the Indiana border. A movie can help us better understand the resplendence, struggle, stories, and feelings of a culture’s denizens, and for December, we’ll look at movies that take us to these places and help us understand things with which we have little experience.
Thanks for reading Movie Night. Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.