Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film, A Serious Man, feels like a loose adaptation of the story of Job to the American Midwest in 1967. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a university physics professor, married with two children, and up for tenure. Larry has lived the life expected of him by society; he has not deviated from the script. Unfortunately, his sickly and bungling brother has taken up residence on the couch; his wife is seeking a divorce so she can move in with Sy Ableman (a much more exciting family friend); and a disgruntled foreign student is threatening his chances for tenure. And that is just the beginning.
Larry’s life is going downhill fast. What is a good Jewish man to do? He seeks the advice of three local rabbis. But wisdom cannot simply be gained by consulting the experts. . . . Larry is seeking meaning beyond merely passing the test and memorizing the rules. Larry’s quest illuminates the need for education to be an active engagement with the world, not merely a passive acceptance of the status quo. Throughout the film, Larry insists that he hasn’t done anything to deserve his suffering. The three rabbis’ advice turns out to be too ambiguous and cryptic, and so Larry remains in a fog of confusion about why he is suffering.
The Coen brothers have a rare gift for making films that are serious enough to be tragic, yet absurd enough to be comedic. And while at times you want to laugh at Larry’s existential crisis and the cliché and aphoristic words of advice offered to him by the rabbis, the film also has a tragic side. Larry has lost his ability to learn. He is educated, but has become an unreflective and uncritical man. He is unable to see that the life he has been chasing is an illusion, and now it may be too late to change course. While the film is wise not to attempt to offer a trite answer to the meaning of suffering, it seems to suggest that it is our response to suffering that matters most of all. The film illustrates that true education is our ability to think about meaning and critically question the way we have shaped society. To become a mensch (a human being or a serious man), Larry would have to see himself as a person with decisions to make, rather than simply going through the motions of life as others have selfishly recommended.