A Serious Man
The Book of Job is one of the most perplexing parts of
the canonical literature of Christianity and Judaism. It has inspired
countless debates about what it means and whether Job ever existed in reality or
was just meant to be the main character in a parable. Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about
the account it is that the
character of "God" is a singularly unpleasant entity. He allows the most pious
believer on earth to be subjected to every manner of anguish in order to win an
argument with the Satan. The Evil One asserts that Job is devout only because
his life is good. In response, God gives the Prince of Darkness permission to
destroy Job's possessions and family, and eventually to cause him great physical
anguish as well. Job never questions God's will during his ordeals, but cries
for an explanation for his suffering, since he has been righteous and can't see
why he would be singled out for such hardships as he must bear.
When God finally appears to tie up the loose plot threads, He appears as a
whirlwind, and the divine voice kvetches about how difficult it is to be the
creator of the universe, how hard He works, and how much responsibility He has,
how His kids don't even call on the Holy Days and blah, blah ... In essence, He
chastises Job for thinking that God should explain himself to His creations,
although He does finally reward Job for never doubting or cursing his creator
throughout his travails. In other words, God is like a particularly petulant old
grandfather who feels no need to explain his arbitrary actions to the young
whippersnappers who claim to be his grandchildren, and therefore owe him their
A Serious Man is the Coen Brothers' seriocomic take on the Job story. Larry
Gopnik (Jobnik? ... Little Job?) is a physics professor whose life suddenly
seems to take a very sharp turn for the worse. His bills mount up. His tenure
application is starting to seem doomed. He's being blackmailed by a student
whose bribe he refused. His wife wants to leave him for his best friend. His
deadbeat, half-sane brother has worn out his welcome on the couch and is
courting various legal problems. His daughter is taking money from his wallet to
save up for a nose job, and his son is a stoner who appears to be well on his
way toward making a fool of himself at his own bar mitzvah. Through it all,
Larry never doubts God, but he seeks answers. He's a Physics professor, after
all, and he wants to know why the universe doesn't add up properly, why a
righteous man seems condemned by heaven. Like the Biblical Job, he questions
three wise men (rabbis, in Larry's case), who offer various degrees of
non-advice ranging from oblique or irrelevant parables to total
non-responsiveness. Larry remains patient, shows compassion for his troubled
brother, and tries to wait out his bad run.
Larry's patience and virtue are finally rewarded. The Lord uses a car
accident to smite the man who would steal Larry's wife. The wife gives off
signals that some form of reconciliation is possible. Larry's son pulls it
together at the bar mitzvah. Tenure looks like a certainty. Things are really
starting to go his way.
And he blows it.
He decides to stray slightly from the virtuous path he has always taken and
to accept a bribe from a student. Just as he finishes altering the grade book,
the phone rings. It is his doctor, who has been studying X-rays. It is an urgent
Meanwhile, across town, Larry's son is about to encounter a sudden,
unexpected tornado. A whirlwind, get it?
Oh, that God. He just won't let anything slide.
I don't think I can tell you anything about the Coens that you don't already
know. They are deeply cynical. They are literate, thoughtful, and philosophical.
One of them graduated from Princeton, the other from NYU film school. They are
superb craftsmen who make personal films. Because of those characteristics, they
are critical darlings. For the very same reasons, they only occasionally
resonate with movie audiences. Since they make the movies they want to make,
there can be quite a few moviegoers who want to see some of their movies, but
more often not. Their brilliant black comedy, the Big Lebowski, grossed less
than twenty million dollars, even though it has created a true cult of
worshippers. Two other cult favorites, Raising Arizona and Fargo, won some fans
and even an Oscar for Fargo, but grossed in the low twenties. The brilliant
gangster film, Miller's Crossing, which many rate equal to The Godfather, went
virtually unnoticed at the box office. Another excellent film, The Man Who
Wasn't There, grossed less than ten million, without even a cult to follow it!
Their Best Picture winner, No Country For Old Men, was also their best grosser,
but maxxed out at a modest $74m. They have filled the public consciousness with
Marge Gunderson, the Dude and Anton Chigurh, and they have earned our respect,
but not our love.
This film will not change that situation, because it is just as brilliant and
even more aloof than usual. It must be their most personal film yet, given that
it's about growing up Jewish in Minneapolis in the 60s, in a family where the
dad is a professor, for heaven's sake, and it is deeply immersed in Jewish
rituals and culture! It contains dialogue in both Yiddish and Hebrew. How many
moviegoers do you think will want to immerse themselves into that environment to
watch a black comedy based on the book of Job, especially one that is more
philosophical than funny? I didn't see a lot of hands going up out there, even
though my own hand was raised. A Serious Man was one of the Coen's biggest box
office duds, and was essentially doomed from the start. It opened on six
screens, never reached more than 260 theaters, and was unable to sell even ten
million dollars worth of tickets, less than two years after the brothers were
given the Best Picture Oscar. This limp performance came on the heels of their
two highest-grossing films ($74m and $60m), and four consecutive films which had
been widely distributed.
Sidebar: if you, like me, were into Jefferson Airplane, you are going to love
the musical score for A Serious Man. This film incorporates strains from
"Today," "Comin' Back to Me," "3/5 of a Mile in Ten Seconds," and "Somebody to
Love." Those four songs are from the same album ("Surrealistic Pillow")! The
first two are among my favorite songs, and bring a tear or two of memory. The
last is a classic, of course, if somewhat overexposed through the years.
Now THIS is an impressive filmography:
- (8.30) - No Country for
Old Men (2007)
- (8.30) - Fargo
- (8.20) - The Big
- (8.10) - A Serious Man
- (8.00) - Miller's
- (7.80) - O Brother,
Where Art Thou? (2000)
- (7.80) - Blood Simple.
- (7.70) - Barton Fink
- (7.70) - The Man Who
Wasn't There (2001)
- (7.50) - Raising
- (7.40) - The Hudsucker
- (7.20) - Burn After
- (6.40) - Intolerable
- (6.20) - The
Their median is 7.75, if you are scoring at home. It takes 7.9 to make the
Top 250 of all time! Interestingly, the Coens do not have a film in the all-time
top 100, although they have three of the next 50.
Here's the box office data in reverse chronological order (last column is max
A Serious Man
Burn After Reading
No Country for Old Men
The Man Who Wasn't There
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Big Lebowski
The Hudsucker Proxy
There is full-frontal nudity in this one, although it's quite a distance from
the camera. Larry climbs up to fix his TV antenna, and his rooftop perch gives
him the opportunity to see over his neighbor's fence. He is dazed to see that
his sexy female neighbor likes to sunbathe naked. And I mean that "dazed" part
literally, as you'll see in the clip.
The actress is Amy Landecker.
The intro to Jefferson's Airplane's "Comin' Back to Me" plays in the
background, but I don't know if anyone but a big Airplane fan like me would even
know that because the song is not that famous, and it gets cut off here before
the vocal begins.
By the way, the quality of the clip is excellent.