Serious Man, A (2009)

Rated: R for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence.
Length: 106 minutes
Grade: DDCB=C
Budget: $7 million
Box Office: $34 million (9 U.S., 22 Intl., 3 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Joel and Ethan Cohen (Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men, Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty, O Brother Where Art Thou, Big Lebowski, Fargo, Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, and Raising Arizona.)
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg
With: Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Simon Helberg, and Adam Arkin.

A Jewish physics professor trying to achieve tenure has his life thrown into turmoil when his wife announces she wants to divorce him and marry a widower and mutual acquaintance. To make matters worse, a failing student attempts to bribe him for a grade and then threatens to sue for defamation of character if he doesn’t accept it. When he consults the Rabbis, he receives little help from them.

Entertainment Value: D
You know how sometimes you are intrigued by something and you watch it intently, but then at the end you sort of wonder what you just did for an hour and a half? Well, there you go. This is a masterfully bizarre and confusing indulgence in what it means to be an American Jew, or at least that’s what it seems like to me, a goy. As you might have suspected from the summary, there’s a lot going on here, and the Cohens are masters of the odd. But in recent efforts, they’ve gone from being super-cool and odd to just being odd. A bit like the disappointing progression of M. Night Shyamalan, quite frankly. I found this a frustrating and thought it did not at all live up to its universal billing as one of the great unrecognized gems of 2009.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity D, Violence C, Language D
Marijuana is bought and smoked. There is an extended scene of female nudity and sexual fantasy. People die, one quite violently in the beginning. And the language is medium to heavy. It could be R rated on any of these particular counts, so R is certainly the right overall rating.

Significant Content: C
This is a movie full of questions and completely lacking in answers. It’s really an expression of Jewish angst at being essentially baffled by the universe and by God. Schroedinger’s Cat is the pivotal analogy of the film (I think), but they never explain it. Drawn from quantum theory, the (layman’s version of the) idea is that a cat inside of a box is really neither alive nor dead (both, really, and neither) until a human observer looks at it because observation creates pathways among alternate realities. How does that influence interpreting the rest of the movie? It just tells you that this will be essentially about ambiguity and existentialism without any particular point. The movie is completely lacking in moral guidance. God is at best inscrutable, and His universe is crazy, but we mustn’t question it too closely. If that doesn’t all seem to hang together, well, I’m doing the best I can with the movie I was given. My best guess is that they tried to make a movie as inscrutable as life but just as varied and interesting. As an experiment in avant-garde filmmaking, I guess this would be a success. But despite moments of genius, the overall thing is an unenjoyable collage for me.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
Which is both an upgrade from the D I originally assigned it and a downgrade from the A I felt like giving it after about a day of being unable to stop thinking about it afterward. I eventually decided that just because something forces you to ponder it doesn’t mean it really has great things worth pondering inside of it. All the critics loved this, and the reason is that its low-box-office-therefore-high-Academy-Awards-appeal reinforces their paradigm assumption that popular and artistic can never coincide.

Discussion Questions:
~What was the point of the fable from the very beginning? Do you see any connection between this and the movie?
~The recurrent musical theme of the movie is the song “Don’t you want Somebody to Love?” by Cream. Why do you think this song is so prominent?
~One rabbi says that, “Hachem (a Jewish substitute for God) doesn’t owe us an answer,” as a way of explaining the world and events. What do you think of this answer?
~Does this movie seem to be saying anything particular about women?
~What do you think of the three rabbis? Do you see them being similar to or very different from Christian pastors? What do you make of the ironic disappointment Larry feels toward these after his pressing demand to see them about his problems?
~Is this meant to be a retelling of Job in some sense?
~Why does Judith want a “get” instead of just a divorce? What do you make of her both honoring her religious duties and yet doing so in pursuit of an adulterous relationship?
~The opening quote said, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” Does this help solve the movie for you at all?
~If you took this exact movie and discovered that it was actually made by non-Jews, would it be seen as anti-Semitic? What’s the difference?
~A recurrent statement in the movie is, “But I haven’t done anything.” Nevertheless, bad things often happen to those who haven’t “done” anything. What is the movie trying to say about our ability to stave off pain and the influence of other people?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The opening folk tale.
~The first encounter with the Korean student.
~The encounter with the Korean student’s father.
~The story of the goy’s teeth.
~Sy Ableman wanting to be civil with Larry and even hug him. Would you have hit him if you were Larry?
~The tornado at the end. Is this meant to put tragedy in perspective? Love?
Overall Grade: C
It’s a self-indulgent Jewish paradox party with many memorable scenes but ultimately nothing much holding it all together except the reputation of two masterful writer-directors in the Cohen brothers. I would love to say that this was one of the hidden gems of 2009, but then I'd have to believe it actually was one of the hidden gems of 2009, wouldn't I?

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