Various Christian media outlets championed True Grit as the acme of the Coen brothers work with religious material, although I think A Serious Man renders True Grit as hollow as a flintlock gun barrel.
Of all the qualities the film owns which might be discussed, the passage which immediately follows the prologue is of peculiar interest. University math prof Larry Gopnik is examined by a doctor, a seemingly routine physical wherein he is x-rayed and questioned and poked. The examination is intercut with scenes from a classroom where a teacher instructs high school sophomores in Hebrew. One of these students is Gopnik’s son. In this, examination and education are suggested as parallel processes. To be questioned is to learn. Learning is not the action of testing a hypothesis. Learning is initiated by something outside of the self. Learning does not mean knowing; learning means being known.
The whole film spills out of this premise. Larry is an essentially Joban character. His life falls apart piece by piece and he struggles to make sense of the evil which God works against him. His wife leaves him, his children drag him down to Sheol with trite complaints and demands, the men who ought to be his friends and aids offer him platitudes, abstractions or excuses to not hear him. Everyone wants his money. Larry’s cry is Job’s cry. “What have I done to anger God?” Like Job, Larry is visited by horrific dreams, and all the while, one single and seemingly inconsequential matter presses against him: will he maintain his integrity, or will he cave in to the apparently simple and material solutions to an immaterial crisis?
When the film concludes again with the same doctor who opened the story, we feel as though the narrative never actually got out of the doctor’s office. The examination has been the whole story. In the final moments, the true examiner comes in a whirlwind to reveal Larry’s mortality as that very thing which ought to have charged his integrity. You will die.
A spirit of discontent runs through the film. As per the opening chapters of Ecclesiastes, there never seems enough time for Larry to do all that he needs to accomplish. A Serious Man is a film constructed upon a series of interruptions. I never felt like Larry had a second to himself, as nearly every moment of his life is intersected by a freight train of stupid requests by those around him. “Such is life,” says one Rabbi, the closest any of Larry’s teachers ever comes to saying anything useful. Larry is King David, standing on his roof, watching Bathsheba sunbathe next door, although his sexual escapade with her is interrupted by the revelation that he is dreaming. The safe departure of Larry’s brother is interrupted by horror, again revealing a dream. Interruption after interruption after interruption.
Here is a breathtakingly honest film, not bitter and yet not despairing. Too often, vain religiosity asks us to skim these interruptions and disappointments from the surface of life to gain the true and singular happiness beneath. This is never satisfying, though, as though interruption and disappointment were somehow less real than an edited and gerrymandered “happiness,” or “contentment with our lot,” or some other speciously Puritanical wash. A Serious Man is, like Ellen Davis’ notes of Ecclesiastes, a story which looks at life from within disappointment, not an optimistic and teacherly story that looks down on disappointment like a patronizing friend. If there is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and enjoy his labor, A Serious Man offers up a far more sublime interpretation of Koheleth’s claim than seems standard among modern evangelicals. The eating and drinking suggested by Solomon is fulfilled in the Christ and not in preparing feasts and getting paid to till the earth. All that is under the sun. That eating and drinking which occurs above the sun is the only eating and drinking that matters. Big pot roasts and rich wine are real, as real as disappointment. The Eucharist transcends these realities, though.
And why is every moment of his life continually interrupted? The story seems to strongly suggest personhood is ecstatic, unboundaried by the body or the self. The parallels between the characters are more than noticeable; they are supercharged and the film nearly breaks the fourth wall to call our attention to them. We never see Sy’s car crash, it is enough to see Larry’s car crash. Both Larry and his son spend the movie with money in their possession that they want to return to its rightful owner. Larry asks, at one point, if he is actually Sy, his wife’s lover. Your life is not your own, suggest the Coens. Your life is mysteriously bound up elsewhere. The “problem of evil” is often enough a convenient veil for the more concrete and incarnate problem we really don’t want to deal with. The problem of others, the problem of me.