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St. Thomas goes to the Movies: A Serious Man

November 12, 2009

a-serious-man-posterI love the Coen brothers. In my mind, they are THE best filmakers we havet. I know, I know. They aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. For those of us who love dark humor, questions about the nature of reality, and beautifully shot films all rolled into one, the Coen brothers can’t be beat. I’m a fan of everything they have done, even their not so stellar efforts like, “The Ladykillers”.

Then comes what will probably considered one of their best works: A Serious Man.

First, I have to something about the experience of seeing the movie. Mrs. St. Thomas and I went to the Drexel theater in Bexley, a neighborhood of Columbus. We had a great dinner at the little cafe. As we grabbed our seats in the theater, the owner of the Drexel came out to introduce the film. How often does that happen? He gave some updates on upcoming films and introduced the film.

Very cool and beats the megaplex experience anytime.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

In my mind, the film is a modern retelling of the book of Job. If you haven’t read that particular book in the Old Testament, it’s not exactly a beach novel. The book is full of suffering, the questions it brings and God’s answer (or lack there of). The story is told through the eyes of Larry Gopnik, a committed Jew living the suburbs of Minneapolis (a hint at the Coen brothers upbringing). He is a guy whose live is going fine when we first meet him. He is a physics professor on the verge of tenure, he has a family, and they live in a nice, safe neighborhood.

Then, it all hits the fan. We found Larry’s life going down the toilet in a hurry. His wife is cheating on him and kicks him out of the house. His kids are stealing from him and smoking pot. Someone is writing nasty letters to the tenure commitee calling his integrity into question. One of his students is trying to bribe him for a grade. His neighbor hates him for being a Jew. And, he is tempted by his other neighbor, a nude sunbathing woman who is ready to pounce on Larry should he give the go ahead.

He goes to three different Rabbi’s who give him answers that aren’t satisfying in the least. Larry doesn’t get any answers except hints of beauty. His son’s bar mitzvah.  His love of math. Friends are trying to help.  But the ending punches you in the gut. I won’t give it away, but  to say, again, Job gives us a hint.

And, if left there, we would think the Coen brother’s are complete existentialist, with the idea that life is meaningless and random. Some people have argued this is exactly the point of any Coen brothers film. They argue that the Coen’s absurdist dark humor is meant to point out the meaninglessness of life.

To think so would ignore moments of genuine beauty and loveliness in their films. In Fargo, it’s pregnant Marge, as her husband puts his hand on her stomach and says, “Three more months”. In O Brother, it’s the dam breaking scene that stands in for God’s washing or the baptism of a congregation. In No Country, the sheriff dreaming of his father or laughing at the absurdity. You see, it’s the laughter that brings beauty and meaning in the films.Their moments of beauty are meant to knock us out of our cynical malaise. We are like Larry, who before his life goes up the creek, says, “I have done nothing. Nothing.” He meant he has done nothing actively wrong. But, then again, because he has done nothing, he has responsiblity for what has happend to his life. Just like us.

The Coen brothers invite us to contimplate the seeming abusrdity of life with the whispered hints of meaning just beyond the veil.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. November 12, 2009 10:02 pm

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, though I hope to (I agree with your thoughts concerning the Coen Brothers). Your statements concerning “laughing at the absurdity” reminded me of this post over at Filmwell.

    http://www.filmwell.org/2009/10/02/the-uncertainty-principle/

    (Disclaimer: I’m a Filmwell contributor.)

  2. November 13, 2009 11:23 am

    “The Coen brothers invite us to contimplate the seeming abusrdity of life with the whispered hints of meaning just beyond the veil.”

    I think what gives a lot of people pause with religion is just this, with “whispered hints of meaning”. Humans are very good at pattern recognition, even when there is none, and the desire to see something in events that we like is a powerful one. The fact is, I think there is a pattern to these “hints”, but not necessarily a unifying force behind them. Nothing is particularly random, but neither is it planned. It’s a series of natural outcomes that sometimes we like and sometimes we don’t.

  3. AdamK permalink
    November 13, 2009 1:02 pm

    “In O Brother, it’s the dam breaking scence that stands in for God’s washing or the baptism of a congregation.”

    Ambiguous sentence structure? Because there were two scenes, the dam-breaking scene and the baptism scene. Although the dam-breaking scene was beautiful, the baptism scene was beautifullest.

    The sunbathing sirens were pretty durn beautiful too.

    But I saw none of it as God’s doing this or that; rather, The Gods were evoked via the whole Homeric structure.

  4. Johann permalink
    November 14, 2009 7:58 pm

    Ahh, more Coen fans. =) I actually haven’t seen this one yet – must remember to check it out.

  5. G to da L permalink
    November 19, 2009 11:56 pm

    I guess you see what you want to see.

    Serious man is indeed existentialist, pretty cynical actually. The more he tries to make sense of his life, the more absurd it becomes. (something that was in Burn after reading as well as in No Country). The ending of Burn After Reading was revealing in that sense: it is revealed that the whole story had no purpose, and that it is better not to even try to make sense of it.

    The laughter? It is directed towards the absurdity of the situations in the films, and towards life itself.

  6. December 9, 2009 9:55 pm

    I’m obligated to point out that you’re referring to nihilism, not existentialism. In nihilism, there is no meaning; in existentialism, meaning is ultimately subjective.

  7. Matt permalink
    February 12, 2010 1:21 pm

    Mr. Riggs is right. Look more into existentialism; it’s not entirely easy to grasp or even summarize, much less start to glimpse the salvation within it. For instance, all those moments of “beauty” you described are accounted for in Camus’ absurdism. Instead of the Job analogy, look into Camus’ Sisyphus analogy to see how this works within an existential framework.

    Existentialists wholeheartedly embrace the invention of meaning and “projects”; life without them would be bleak, and you can only stand naked in the storm for a short while before clinging to something. As long as you don’t mistake those “somethings” for essence. In the film, Gropnik is butting against the fundamental truth of existence. Yes, it’s terrifying, but hiding your eyes isn’t any better.

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