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FILM REVIEW: New Coen brothers movie shows what not to do Jason Byassee, Dec 11, 2009
By Jason Byassee Special Contributor
There can’t be a recent movie that spends more screen time on pastoral care than the recent A Serious Man. Perhaps this subject is of more interest to critics than consumers—it has been acclaimed by the former but largely ignored by the latter. And if it offers nothing else, this one could be used in pastoral care courses to show what not to do in such a setting.
I had heard that the Coen brothers’ newest was a retelling of the book of Job. Some of their best comedies (The Big Lebowski) skirt around the edges of religion and some plunge right in (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), so the combination seemed irresistible.
But if it is a retelling, it is a poor one indeed.
The biblical story turns on a few key fulcra: a wager between God and the devil, a just man stripped of his earthly loves and goods, false comfort from friends for chapter upon chapter, God’s insistence that we humans can’t even understand the degree to which we can’t understand, and the restoration of said loves and goods with extra to spare. Not one of those elements is present in this film.
That’s not to say it’s a bad story or badly told, it’s just to say it’s not very biblical, and the Coens could use some improved advance billing. What the film is, is very, very Jewish. From an opening parable that asks whether a holy man is actually a demon—and how would we know?—to a slew of yiddishisms left hardly explained, this is the story of the tribe in America circa the late 1960s.
Larry Gopnik is a physics professor on the edge of a risky tenure review at a Midwestern university. His son gets baked rather than study for his Bar Mitzvah, his daughter is stealing money from him for a nose job, and his wife is leaving him for no clear reason for an old “friend” who proceeds to offer him unctuous pastoral care.
While unasked-for bad things happen to Gopnik, there is nothing on a biblical scale in the body of the film, just the sort of everyday horror that confronts us all.
A cultural clash may invite a terrible breach in ethics that could end a career. Or it could just be a misunderstanding. Which is it? The guy from the get-12-free-then-we-mail-you-an-overpriced-one-monthly record company calls every day to ask where your payment is.
The Coens present the inanity of life with wide camera angles of asphalt laden treeless suburbia in a way that is both haunting and hilarious.
Larry’s friends—including one who seems like nothing so much as a chipper evangelical—constantly tell him to “talk to the rabbi.” “We’re Jews, we’ve been through this before,” she says amidst her “Everything happens for a reason” theological banality.
So he goes. The first one he sees looks younger than his 12-year-old. The “junior rabbi” agrees the senior one may have more life experience. “But look at this parking lot!” he insists with the verve of someone who read a bit of Heidegger in seminary and now struggles to explain the existential import of our “throwness” to a bewildered layman.
The senior rabbi tells a story that includes a genuine miracle: Hebrew letters have appeared on the inside of a goy’s lower front teeth. How can this be? What could it mean? The rabbi concludes the story with no answer.
“That’s it?!” Larry demands.
“Well, yes,” the rabbi says, bewildered that the angst-ridden man in the opposite chair actually wants answers, not unexplained and lesson-free signs and wonders.
The third rabbi, as old as Abraham himself, rebuffs Larry’s efforts to meet with him.
“The rabbi is busy,” his secretary deadpans.
“He doesn’t look busy!” Larry retorts.
“He’s thinking,” she replies.
Never have I seen clergy so effectively and devastatingly depicted as inept. One of them even has a miracle to work with and can’t give his parishioner what he so desperately needs.
In one of the film’s unforgettable scenes, Larry dreams he is explaining the Uncertainty Principle to a sea of blank students. The blackboard is larger than life, filled with inexplicable jottings, at the conclusion of which Gopnik insists: “And it all means we can’t understand anything. But you’re still responsible for it on the midterm.”
It’s a perfect explanation of our lack of explanation of life. We can prove it makes no sense. Yet we’re still on the hook as those who have to explain it. Good luck with that.
In another scene that verges on the surreal, Larry helps his fugitive brother break for a new life in Canada. He paddles away, waving gratefully before being shot in the head by the redneck deerslaying neighbor whom Larry can’t stand. The man then directs his son to aim at Larry, “Look, another Jew, shoot him son.”
The trusty device of the sudden awakening from the nightmare succeeds again. Just when you think you’ve assimilated in America, learned how to flee to Canada of all good American things to do in the 60s, the goy next door draws a bead.
The movie’s ending is bewildering and funny and terrifying enough to recommend the entire thing. It’s the perfect encapsulation of the whole: confusing, hilarious, frightening, sort of like life and sort of like Job. At the end you’re no more wise than when you came in, perhaps a little more mad at God and a little more glad for Jewish particularity refusing to be swallowed up into American sameness.
Surely we clergy offer better pastoral care amidst all this banality than that, don’t we? Please God? Are you listening?
Dr. Byassee is executive director of the Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.