The Legendary Coen Brothers team up with Roger Deakins to double down on their thematic philosophy of an indifferent Universe with the help of the talented Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolff, Amy Landecker & more in this hilarious yet thought-provoking film.

Written by: Keagen Fritz  – July 19th, 2020 12:45 pm  pst

Still – Poor Larry

Still – A Serious Man

The Coen Brothers have built a reputation for themselves as the filmmakers with sharp visuals, all-star casts, legendary soundtracks, and a deadly sharp wit.  However, their films have another throughline that commentates on the Universe’s nature towards humanity, which shapes their beloved narratives down to the smallest detail.  According to the Coens, the Universe is utterly ambivalent towards mankind to the point of common hostility.  Often the lesson learned is that there’s nothing you can do to change the Universe’s opinion.  Those who learn to accept the Universe’s attitude and drift with it prosper but those that attempt to assert control over her are left bloodied and bruised.

Still – Often medical professional’s are as baffled as we are

It doesn’t sound like the most fun time at the movies when you say it like that, but the Coen brothers have managed to entertain with every release, proving not only their capabilities as filmmakers but also their deep commitment to this ideology.  The Coen’s pull heavily from their Jewish heritage to further flesh out this style across their entire filmography, but none are as directly linked to their past as A Serious Man.  Taking place in their hometown and loosely following the biblical Book of Job, the Coen brothers meditate on the philosophy they’ve hung their entire careers on in a way that’s deeply personal yet could provide solace to anyone. 

Still – Don’t drift off on me yet

A Serious Man presents itself as a dark comedy about Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish physics professor who finds himself unraveling at the seams as life continues to challenge him across the board, all set to the backdrop of 1967 America engulfed in the Vietnam War and the counterculture movement. He’s surrounded by selfish neighbors, a nasty divorce looms, his kids don’t respect him, he’s now responsible for his jobless brother, and someone’s trying to sabotage his chance at tenure– Things aren’t fantastic for Larry.  He begins to question everything and seeks answers to aid his helplessness.  This premise allows A Serious Man to hold firm and fast on the Coen’s trademark thematic style of pitting a character against an indifferent world but doubles down on it by making it the centerpiece of the whole movie.

Still – Poor Larry

In an effort to fix things, Larry seeks advice from three Rabbis hoping to restore some clarity.  The first Rabbi thinks that Larry is looking at the world through tired eyes, which leaves the world merely filled with things to deal with as opposed to beings to engage with. His advice is a fresh perspective fueled by a capacity to find wonder in the details.  When Larry dismisses the notion and furthers the case for his misfortune, the Rabbi reminds him that he has to see absolutely everything as an expression of God’s will, even the negatives.  It’s crucial to understand what the religious terms used in the film are actually referring to.

You can equate “God’s Will” and “Nature” for the sake of universality as it operates the same within the claim.  Both are just referring to the natural set of physical laws that govern the Universe, which exists at a fundamental level and isn’t restricted to any religious pretext.  The themes explored don’t rely on religious ideas to support them but instead simply use it as context specific to the Coen brothers. 

Still – The 1st Rabbi

Essentially what he’s trying to tell him is; Larry doesn’t have to like his situation, but he shouldn’t forget there’s a lot of beauty outside of his struggles.

Still – The 2nd Rabbi

The second Rabbi attempts to guide Larry by suggesting he just wait it out and not think too much about finding answers to the questions that rack his brain.  The Rabbi only offers an eccentric story about a dentist to comfort him.  However, beyond the dynamic visual cutaway thanks to Roger Deakins and a groove-heavy Jimi Hendrix needle drop, the story doesn’t provide Larry with any real answers.  He feels cheated by the lack of payoff, but the Rabbi notes that we can’t know everything and that he should follow the story’s advice and just return to life.  Comical, yes, but this scene exemplifies the Coen’s ambivalent universe philosophy perfectly.  Larry, and the rest of us, can want the answers, but the Universe doesn’t owe us those answers.  It doesn’t owe us anything.

Still – Larry finds the beauty of a glass with the assistance of Mary Jane

Following the style laid out thus far in the movie, the third Rabbi didn’t even make time for Larry, adding to his list of disappointments.  Only now, we notice alongside Larry, that the disappointment is self-created based on assumptions that things should go a certain way.  Here they begin to circle a vaguely Buddhist mentality of accepting the wild nature of the Universe and not feeding internal desires. 

Still – What are your desires?

The film ends with a uniquely comforting bitterness, the familiar taste of a miserable day.  Here, however, it’s portrayed not unique to your suffering but a byproduct of participation in the human experience as a whole.  Even though this particular narrative was coming to a close, the Coens leave enough clues that things don’t necessarily get better.  There are good moments in life that can be found and savored, but you have to create them.  The Universe doesn’t owe happiness, but neither does it owe you suffering.  Both of those are up to you and how you decide to interpret your experiences.

Still – Accept the wild nature of reality

You can stream A Serious Man on Netflix.   

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About The Author:

Keagen Fritz is a screenwriting and production major at California State University Fullerton with growing industry experience looking to make a living off the written word.  He currently writes for AfterBuzz TV and has his own series “The Universal Truth” where he dives into art to pull out messages that could relate to anyone.    

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