Who’s A Serious Man?

Update – Good comments from an important reader. 

Nov 8, 2008 – Cousin Nancy told me that she liked the movie, A Serious Man, and said she would be on the look-out for my impressions. Naturally, she indicated that she inferred all sorts of symbolism from the story.

Let me start by going on the record to say that I am not a fan of the Coen brothers’ movies (by the way, where in the heck did they get the spelling of that last name? Did some retarded administrative clerk on Ellis Island accidentally drop the ‘h’ when their grandparents immigrated to the US?). In fact, this is the first time I’ve actually paid my hard-earned dollars to view one of their offerings (at the Neon “Art” Theatre in downtown Dayton).

Since the movie was set in their State of birth (Minnesota), they’re obviously being coy in letting us know that portions of the movie were autobiographical. The Coens are about 5 Years older than me, but many of the scenes remind me of my childhood attending Jewish Day School.

The story is about a middle-aged Jewish professor (the “Serious Man”) that encounters every challenge known to man in a one-week period: he is being bribed by a student, his wife wants a divorce, he is being seduced by a neighbor, his son is experimenting with drugs, his brother is being arrested, and so on.

At the highest level of abstraction, the movie shows us a relatively humorous take on the age-old questions: Why do bad things happen to good people? And, what is the meaning of life? The Coen viewpoint is that many people pretend to have insights, but in reality, there aren’t simple answers to these deep philosophical questions.

At another level of abstraction, the movie is a critique of people that spend their lives following the mysticism of religion. The last time I heard the term “Serious Man” was during my elementary school days when a Rabbi used it as a euphemism for a person who carefully considers the consequences of his decisions. In this case, the protagonist is carefully following the tenants of his religion and consulting the sage rabbis, but all to no avail.

At the end of the movie, we see the Serious Man getting his life back together and electing to “bend the rules” by giving-in to the student’s bribe. As soon as he changes the student’s grade, the protagonist once again receives bad news. Thus, the Coen script reaffirms the ambiguity of life’s twists and turns.

Overall, I gave the movie a B.


  1. I was the one who recommended the movie “The Serious Man” to Dan, and I think the movie is one of the best movie’s I’ve ever seen. Here’s why: In addition to asking these age-old questions of why bad things happen to good people and what is the meaning of life, the movie asks and offers a provisional answer to the question of what it means to be a Jew in America in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

    The main character of the movie, whose name escapes me at the moment, is a physics professor who is up for tenure. He’s an intelligent, thoughtful, humble, gentle soul, the kind of person I’ve been raised to admire. I believe I admire people like this because of my Jewish heritage, as these are Jewish values. But our physics professor is up against an American culture that has different ideas of what it means to be a man, and these cultural differences underlie many of the tensions in the movie. Though the viewer is brought to care about the protagonist, he does have one flaw that is stereotypical of Jewish men: their tendency to be passive and accepting of things that happens to him. The events of this movie put pressure on this fault of our protagonist and make us at times feel frustrated with him, and yet his character descends directly from a prescription from Rashi that opens the movie: “Accept with simplicity everything that happens to you in your life.” The physics professor is deeply Jewish and embodies Jewish values.

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