Tuesday 8 December 2009

A Tsuris Man

As everyone knows by now, A Serious Man is the “most Jewish” of Joel and Ethan Coen’s movies. I saw it last night and understood why many Jewish critics have felt offended by it. In the hands of the Coen brothers, the Book of Job turns into Kaballah meets the Theatre of the Absurd.

As the saying goes, “Jews are like everyone else and more so”, even more so in the unrestrained imaginations of two of the greatest film makers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. A Serious Man is peopled by bland, vacant, selfish, foul-mouthed Jews. And that’s just the rabbis. There’s a Talmud Torah teacher who keeps a copy of Playboy hidden in his desk drawer, while other Jews in the film are in various combinations adulterous, lecherous, potheads.

For what it’s worth, the few goys in the movie don’t fare any better. The Japanese father is corrupt and willing to pay handsomely under the table for his son to get a good grade in physics. The non-Jewish neighbour of the principal character is an anti-Semite whose hate for Jews is exceeded only by his dislike of Orientals.

Larry Gopnik, like Job, is a man “perfect in his generation” (well, compared to everyone else) but “born to trouble as the sparks fly upward”. He doesn’t drink, smoke, swear, womanise (though, unlike his counterpart in the Hebrew Scriptures, when the opportunity presents itself he gives in to the temptation to take a peek at his next door neighbour sunbathing au naturale), cheat or lie but his world suddenly begins to fall apart around him. It starts with his wife informing she wants a “get” (no one else, not even the rabbis, seem to know what a “get” is) because she and Larry’s friend Sy have become “close”. From there on Larry is on a downward spiral. As a physicist, the distraught. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle tells him that no one knows what is going on but, like Job, he wants to know what is going on. Why are bad things happening to him? Why does HaShem allow him to suffer?

His three comforters are rabbis. The first two have nothing of substance to say and the third, considered to be the wisest of them all, just has nothing to say; he’s too busy thinking. The wisdom he eventually imparts to Larry’s post Bar Mitzvah son is not from Torah or Talmud but from Jefferson Airplane: "When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies… what then?"

The lesson? “Be a good boy.”

Larry's Satan/Adversary/Accuser is the Barry White soundalike Sy Adelman who takes away Larry's wife and home, and attempts to sabotage Larry’s tenure as a teacher through a series of anonymous letters to the school where Larry teaches.

In the closing scene of the movie, Larry’s doctor calls to tell him he wants to see him about some X-rays he took at the beginning of the film while, simultaneously, a tornado heads for Larry's son’s school. Was this the point, I wondered, when God would speak to Larry out of the whirlwind as he did to Job? In other words, was this the beginning of a turn around in Larry's fortunes? Or was the whirlwind an ominous portent that Larry's woes were only just beginning, as at the beginning of Job when a whirlwind kills Job's children?

A Serious Man is, like so many Coen brothers’ films, extremely clever. It is at one and the same time hilarious but tragic and serious. And, like their No Country for Old Men, it is bleak and without redemption. Not even Rashi is of any help; “Accept with simplicity everything that happens to you” is the quote at the start of the film.

The Coens paint a bleak picture of the inability of Judaism, or physics for that matter (no pun intended), to answer the deep questions of life. The answers to the questions asked by Larry, and Job before him, are found not even in the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings but in the one of whom they spoke, the one who said to his disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

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