Review: ‘Serious Man’ searches for spiritual life |

Review: ‘Serious Man’ searches for spiritual life

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Michael Stuhlbarg stars as physics professor Larry Gopnik in writer/directors Joel & Ethan Coen’s A SERIOUS MAN, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Wilson Webb
Wilson Webb |

Joel and Ethan Coen have given hints of the presence of God in previous films.

In “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” the trio of escapees from a chain gang contemplate Baptism and flee from the Devil to the accompaniment of a gospel soundtrack that plays “I Am Weary, Let Me Rest” and “Down to the River to Pray.” The lawless Southwest of “No Country for Old Men” may have been absent an almighty power – the amoral Anton Chigurh is still stalking victims as Sheriff Bell, “overmatched” by the world’s evil, decides to retire.

But the comparably violent northern Midwest of “Fargo” is relatively well-ordered: One bad guy ends up in a wood-chipper, another in the back of a police car, while the good (presumably Lutheran) couple Margie and Norm sit in bed, awaiting the birth of their child and feeling good about Norm’s winning design for a postage stamp.

And toward the end of “The Big Lebowski,” Walter Sobchak, a convert to Judaism, eulogizes his friend Donny – “In your wisdom you took him, Lord” – before scattering Donny’s ashes all over the Dude. Of course, there’s something holy in the very existence of His Dudeness: “It’s good knowin’ he’s out there, the Dude, takin’ her easy for all us sinners,” the Stranger sums up.

With “A Serious Man,” the Coen Bro’s get serious about Who or What might be up there, and what kind of relationship He has with his ultimate creation, man. Specifically, one man, Larry Gopnik.

It’s 1967, and though the film is set in suburban Minnesota (the land that produced the Coens) and not the Haight-Ashbury, a psychedelic sea-change has washed over the land. Kids in Hebrew school are buying pot and listening to the Jefferson Airplane, not studying their Torah portions. New Age thinking and new sexual mores are pushing aside the old norms.

But Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a mild-mannered professor of physics at a small college, isn’t drinking the Kool-Aid. There’s far too much messing with his mind – a dissatisfied wife; two bickering, self-centered kids; a schizophrenic brother sleeping on the cot; his bid for tenure; a brewing payola scandal – for him to start messing with pot and Santana’s “Abraxas” album.

Besides which, Larry is a serious man – nerdy, honest, committed to family and work. And in his world of old-fashioned Jewishness, being serious means being religious. So when the wheels come off his life, Larry heads for God – or more precisely, His representative here on Earth, the rabbi.

But spiritual comfort proves elusive. The local Big Cheese Reb, Marshak, is infinitely wise, and surely can point Larry toward the light – but Marshak is also ancient, cloistered and too busy to see Larry. So Larry is shuttled off first to Rabbi Scott – the “Junior Rabbi” – and then to the middle-tier Rabbi Nachtner. Neither is any help.

The cosmic joke running through “A Serious Man” is that the mysteries of the heavens seem to be everywhere. Rabbi Scott points out the spiritual wonder of the temple parking lot; even richer, Rabbi Nachtner tells Larry the story of the Gentile man whose teeth are inexplicably etched with letters from the Hebrew alphabet. Even when the rabbis are not involved, everything that happens to Larry – the impending decision on his tenure, the sunbathing woman next door, the calls from the Columbia record club – seems to have been maneuvered by the hand of God. Larry is being tempted, tricked and tortured, and made to ask: Is there a God? And if so, are we just here for His amusement?

God may be pulling strings here, but the bigger puppet master is the Coen brothers. The Coens bring up issues of faith and morality in a manner that is unique and unsettling, and they punctuate it with black humor, the milieu of the ’60s, a teasing disdain for most of the characters, and their typically absorbing visual craft.

I have no idea if the sensibility of “A Serious Man” will make the least bit of sense to someone who didn’t attend Hebrew school for way too many years, who didn’t grow up with classic rock and weed-grade marijuana. But I did, and it leaves me thinking that this may be the Coens at their best, and most serious.

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