Over decades of movie addiction, I know after depositing my fee for entrance, somewhere between the candy counter and the seat, I lose my critical sensibilities by putting on a pair of invisible (virtual) glasses, instruments of optical delusion that allow me to see almost anything I want in any movie.
Through their films, the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan) especially have spun cinema narratives to provoke maximum flexibility so that audiences can identify with warped people and idiotic problems in their own lives.
Their new film, “A Serious Man,” recreates Satan’s brutalizing of Job, with caricature theologians opining in bromides on the source of his suffering. The Coen brothers’ protagonist, however, can’t bring himself to challenge God or even ask the obvious question: How could God permit so much misery and horror? God of course responds anyway, cinematically, at the film’s end. But unlike the Job story, “A Serious Man” adds humor to the perennial attempt to reconcile evil with total faith in God. This film induced me to ponder the irrational power wielded by orthodoxy in our world, extending from the Middle East to the Republican Party.
Like tens of millions of people then and now, my grandparents practiced rituals of Orthodoxy. By following the “laws” (no matter how irrational), they showed faith in God. Those questioning such absurd practices demonstrated a lack of faith. Like me – as a kid and an adult. Faith led my grandmother to refuse to eat even an apple in our non kosher house. When nuns in habit walked by she covered my eyes and muttered Yiddish hexes to protect me from the dybbuk, an evil spirit escaped from a Jewish version of Hell that inhabits living flesh to accomplish what it failed to do when alive.
The film begins with a scene of such mystical twaddle – set in the 19th Century featuring a nebbish (pitifully ineffectual, luckless, and timid person), his no-nonsense wife and an old, sweet looking rabbi, who died three years earlier, in whom lives this dybbuk. Cut from ice pick in chest of Rabbi (put there by the nebbish’s wife) to 1967.
Meet nebbish 2, Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), a logical, and faith-based physics professor at a Midwestern university whose mind refuses to calculate his own chaos. His life sucks, but he has erected a cloud of denial to keep from acknowledging it. Has the 19th Century ghoul from Poland somehow crept inside Larry to torment him?
Larry explains math equations to his uninterested students. A rabbi explicates Torah passages in Hebrew school while Larry’s 12 year old son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), listens to Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane on his pocket tape deck. “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies, don’t you want somebody to love?” The indignant rabbi confiscates the radio where Danny has hidden the $20 he stole from his older sister to pay the weed dealer, also the Hebrew School bully.
Gopnick’s family from Hell also includes an older teenager, Sarah (Jessica McManus), who steals from Larry’s wallet to pay for a nose job and is obsessed with washing her hair, and his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), who announces she loves Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) — a pompous hypocrite known in the faith-based Jewish community as “a serious man.”
Larry’s problems include his gun-loving, Jew-hating neighbor who encroaches on Larry’s property, bill collectors trying to make him pay debts he doesn’t owe and his neurotic brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), who crashes on the couch and spends hours in the bathroom draining a neck boil–thus preventing Sarah from washing her hair. Larry’s mounting stress and agony pushes him to seek help and wisdom, but not complain.
The rabbis –like priests, ministers or imams – offer Larry platitudes. Tens of millions of Americans, for example place their faith in such pomposity posing as religious wisdom. The youngest rabbi tells Larry: “Look outside. Life is like that parking lot.” Larry looks. He sees parked cars.
Like the rabbis, Larry’s family also remains oblivious to his vicissitudes. They fixate on their own needs: pot, a nose job, and marrying Sy. But Larry can’t even pity himself because his self-doubt and inner guilt have possessed him. Is this the real dybbuk?
Larry never questions his faith, and begins to face his problems. God has answered him. Or has he? His doctor phones about prostate cancer test results, and a tornado twists toward the synagogue. Larry’s stoned son stares in awe. Will the nebbish gene not get passed on?
One movie-goer worried “this film will foment anti-Semitism.” By laughing at fools, we laugh at ourselves. Has orthodoxy – of whatever religion or political sect — made a sense of humor suspect, if not down-right subversive?