Monday, March 15, 2010

Monday Movie Day Reviews

A Serious Man (2009): In the book of Job, a man is stripped away of all his earthly blessings. His wealth and possessions are stolen or destroyed, his children killed in a tragic accident, his health overcome by painful sores, his marriage nearly broken by the constant stream of tragedy. Job questions everything, demanding answers from God for the pain he's experiencing. But God doesn't immediately respond. Instead, three friends come alongside Job and offer advice that, on an initial glance, have the appearance of wisdom. Yet as the dialogue continues, both Job and the reader begin to realize that the friends' counsel is lacking, that their answers are simply unsatisfactory.

The Coen brothers' film A Serious Man is a modern-day retelling of Job and it captures the ethos of the biblical epic nearly perfectly. Following the life of a 1960s-era Midwestern professor, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), A Serious Man addresses serious spiritual questions about suffering and doubt, revealing how God answers those questions in the most unexpected ways. Larry's life has hit a downward spiral. His wife is leaving him (for a family friend, no less!), his tenure is in question, his neighbors are becoming increasingly frustrating, his inept brother wallows around his house, and his children seem more detached and rebellious. Sadly, the tragedy of Larry's life doesn't seem much different than the majority of American households--strained or estranged marriage, stressed-out kids, a lack of job security, and a nominal spiritual life.

Larry is a fairly ordinary guy trying to live out his Jewish faith as best as he can. While Larry doesn't appear directly responsible for a number of the tragedies that befall him--having a student attempt to blackmail him, for instance--he can't be described as completely blameless like his Biblical counterpart. In a scene strikingly similar to a modern-day Bathsheba incident, Larry stares longingly from his rooftop at his attractive--and topless--sunbathing neighbor. Larry isn't perfect, but he's trying his best. We can empathize with Larry's mounting frustration as incident after incident occur. While his wife's lover is a self-described "serious man," Larry is truly the titular character--he's an ordinary man who asks the most serious of existential questions about God and reality.

To find answers, Larry turns to his Jewish faith for comfort, seeking the wisdom of three local rabbis. The film not only serves as a parallel to Job but also an insightful look into Midwestern Jewish culture; the script is filled with Jewish jargon and ceremonies. I felt like I was allowed a glimpse into a cultural circle I've never frequented; I can appreciate Jewish culture much more now. Each rabbi serves the role of the three friends in Job's own trials--they offer answers, but not satisfying ones. The second rabbi shares a long anecdote intended to offer comfort, failing to comfort Larry with his lack of moral lesson or explanations. He suggests that the emotions Larry is feeling will just go away with time. "I don't want it to just go away!" Larry pleads. "I want an answer!" The rabbi replies, "Sure, we all want the answer! But Hashem doesn't owe us the answer, Larry, Hashem doesn't owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way." Larry's exasperated response is the thesis of the film:

"Why does he make us feel the questions if he's not gonna give us any answers?"

Why indeed, Larry, why indeed. Though we do have some answers; we have the truth embodied in Jesus and further revealed in Scripture. Yet our finite minds still cannot contain the entire picture. We don't have emotionally satisfying explanations for pain and death and tragedy. But we do have hope; we have hope in Christ.

Filled with darkly winsome humor, solid cinematography, and excellent performances from actors you've probably never heard of, I thoroughly enjoyed this insightful and entertaining movie. The film was recently rated the highest English-language film on the Arts and Faith Top 100 (it sits at #22) and for good reason. From its opening parable about a elderly couple and a dybbuk, to the final ambiguous scene (in typical Coen brothers fashion, the end is frustratingly open to interpretation), A Serious Man assumes the presence of God in our world and that He cares enough to engage with our questions about pain and suffering. Whether the answers are personally satisfying are up for debate. But God is here, He is active, He is mysterious, and He is good. If I redid my top 10 favorite films for 2009, A Serious Man would certainly make the list.

For discussion in the comments: If you've seen the film, what is your interpretation of the ending? I found that a reading of Job 1:18-19 and Job 38:1 brought both clarity and more possible interpretations. I may share my thoughts, but spoilers will likely be a part of the discussion.