(Focus Features) What’s purely wonderful about the Coens’ A Serious Man: it gives you something that most of today’s films do not: a challenge to think. About what? Well, let’s try the meaning of life and how we make our decisions: Do we follow the Good Book and its interpreters, or do we make judgments and think for ourselves?
A word of advice about this film. Every critic will have an interpretation. It may be a look back into the early history of the Coens. It may be a satire on middle class conservative Jewish life — very Woody Allen. Please enjoy the film and forget the interpretations of the critics. Listen not to The New York Times or The Village Voice …nor even Buzzine. Figure it out for yourself. That’s the fun of it.
But just for fun, here is my view: Start with the little introduction of the Old World scene. [Spoiler] Back in the old country, a Jew breaks a wheel off his wagon, and a kindly passerby stops to help him, so he invites the kind man home for a plate of soup. But his wife has heard that this man died of typhus weeks before …and he’s walking abroad? That makes him a dybbuk, an evil spirit. He will curse the house! The husband is willing to take him as he is, a kindly helpful old soul. The wife, following bubbe-mayses, or old granny tales, believes him to be a spirit and to prove that she’s right, she sticks a knife in him. Actually, he bleeds and walks away laughing.
That sets the scene. Maybe not for you, but for me, and for that reason, see this film and figure it out for yourself. It may seem to be totally Jewish, and in fact the end credits claim that no Jews have been harmed in the making of this film. I see Jewish to mean …let’s think Old Testament (or any Testament). In A Serious Man, you have the story of a poor schnook, a man who lives by The Book. Whatever happens, he never thinks for himself but judges by what he’s told is right. He is Job — a story written thousands of years ago to prove that, among deities, this One is the best for you. Job is tested, given endless miseries, but he never curses God, and in the end, he’s rewarded, just as Abraham is tested by God who asks him to sacrifice his only son, and when he gets ready to do it, he’s rewarded. (This is not a spoiler; read the Old Testament for yourself, for literary reasons alone — an absolute must.) Our protagonist, a math professor, is Job-like in his total passivity in the face of obvious problems, and listening for the holy Word for an answer, he actually invites disaster. He never asserts, just accepts. I mean, you can’t fight a tornado, but maybe you can get yourself into the cellar when the wind swirls and the sky gets dark.
I won’t recount the rest of the plot, because the fun of this film is to see it for yourself and ask what it means… if not what the Coens intended then simply what it said to you. Do you live by observation and experience, by gut and intellect to create the best life in spite what thunderbolts Fate throws at you, or are you controlled by the words of the “holy men” sent to interpret “the way” for you. Accept the existential, the unknowingness of things, or make a stab at being the master of what you can control.
Please have some fun with this movie. Have a good time with great performances, good pacing, and ask yourself, when the tornado strikes finally, why nobody moves out of the way. I guess it takes Jewish producers to produce this film, and maybe it takes a Jewish reviewer to have fun with it. I admit I have never seen a dybbuk but I’ll tell you truthfully, I’d never compliment a grandchild without saying “kineahora” and spitting three times. I happen to be secular, but why take chances with the evil eye?
For Fans Of: No Country for Old Men, Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn't There, The Big Lebowski
Why We Like It: incisive philosophical points, open to interpretation, mythology in the modern day