Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Serious Man



Larry Gopnik is not a hero. He's not even an everyman. He's a menial mensch. Unlike Job, who was the innocent pawn of some sadistic showdown between God and the devil, Larry is somewhat responsible for his own undoing. He married a rather horrid, unkind woman, and his children have been raised to be selfish and ungrateful. Add to that the disruption of external forces - a messed-up brother, a tenure track going off the rails, a student bent on bribery or blackmail,and a half-dozen other woes brought on by fate or circumstance - and this poor schlep has every reason to be serious.

He looks for answers in three rabbis. Their answers are, perhaps, less than satisfying.

That's where I'll leave you in terms of the storyline. The Coen Brothers films can be hard work. I'm still trying to figure out why they made "Burn After Reading", and Wendy finds their character-driven movies a tad tedious. But, "No Country for Old Men" was about as flawless as a film could be. "Raising Arizona", "Miller's Crossing", "The Big Lebowski", "Fargo", stop me when I run out of masterpieces.

What makes "A Serious Man" so important is the moral conundrum the Coens put before us. Larry Gopnik is a good man. No better or worse than you or I. He's made some bad choices, and has learned to live with them, but the sum total of those choices, along with a little misfortune from external forces, and he finds himself in a spiritual crossroad. Three rabbis, three 'non-answers' later, he's left to wonder (a) if there is a God, (b) if God is disengaged from our day to day lives and/or (c) if God is deeply involved and either lacks benevolence or believes in doling out punishment that is, at the least, haphazard, and at the most, sadistic.

The ending doesn't leave you with much consolation. Their answer seems to be, 'We don't know the answer', which is exactly what I want and expect from the Coens. These are not Mel Gibson filmmakers with good-conquers-evil imperatives. Larry Gopnik is not William Wallace. Of course, neither are we. That's the point. On most days, we likely feel more like a Serious Man (or woman) than a Braveheart.

I know this year, I've seen more loved ones experience heartache and loss than in any other time. I won't go into specifics, but it truly runs the gamut. Meanwhile, I have had a year that has been filled with hard-won blessings. You begin to look around at who you have in your life, the gifts you've been given, and the opportunities to give and grow. You also look at the choices you've made, or perhaps should've made, and realize that we're all navigating a terrain that only becomes clear in the rear view.

"A Serious Man" asks some serious questions, and like most smart films, it doesn't provide answers. I think if it did, the Coens would do us a great disservice.

If you go see this film, you won't walk away smiling, but you may leave wrestling with some spiritual questions, and that's worth $10 and two hours of my time any day.

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