“A Serious Man” (2009). Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Peter Breitmayer, Amy Landecker, David Kang, Simon Helberg, George Wyner, Alan Mandell, Adam Arkin, Ari Hoptman, Allen Lewis Rickman, Yelena Shmulenson, Fyvush Finkel, Michael Lerner. Directors: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Screenplay: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. http://www.filminfocus/focusfeatures/film/a_serious_man.
Pick a proverb: We must all endure a little rain to appreciate the sunshine; when life hands you lemons, make lemonade; a rolling stone crushes everything in its path (especially when big enough). Clichéd though the foregoing might be, they’re all essential elements of lessons in acceptance, a core theme of the quirky new Coen Brothers comedy, “A Serious Man.”
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a man beset by problems. He’s a hardworking Jewish everyman living in the Minneapolis suburbs in the late 1960s who works diligently at supporting his family, doing a capable job as a physics professor, and being a good friend and neighbor. But no matter what Larry does, life always dumps on him. Whether it’s due to the incessant whining of his ungrateful kids (Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus), the freeloading of his ne’er-do-well brother (Richard Kind), the subtle bigotry of his next-door neighbor (Peter Breitmayer) or the unreasonable demands of his shrewish wife (Sari Lennick) (who unapologetically plans to ditch Larry for one of his best friends (Fred Melamed)), Larry ends up the butt of everyone’s indignities. He gets stuck paying legal bills, funeral costs and bail bonds for things seemingly not of his making. And when he consults three rabbis (Simon Helberg, George Wyner, Alan Mandell) for guidance on the meaning of these seemingly unjust acts, he’s met with cluelessness, irrelevance or indifference.
But as unfair as these circumstances may appear to Larry, there are compensating factors, too, such as the unsolicited acts of “kindness” offered by his neighbor, Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker), a sort of Mrs. Robinson-in-training. What’s more, not all those who would perpetrate untoward acts against him wind up succeeding. (Things can get better, it would seem.) But even when all is apparently going well, that doesn’t mean the other shoe still can’t drop—and in far more devastating ways. Or, then again, perhaps not.
Anyone who employs law of attraction practices knows that we each co-create our own reality (with the collaboration of the Universe, All That Is or whatever one calls it) through our beliefs and intents. That includes both the positive and negative manifestations we experience. But if we supposedly have a choice, why would anyone purposely create anything negative? (Larry would certainly appreciate an answer to that question.)
In achieving the results we seek, we can’t always predict how we’ll reach them, even when we’ve stated our intents clearly and honestly. Sometimes the Universe needs to take us down an unlikely path, perhaps to arrange for an unforeseen but fortuitous synchronicity. (The proverbial silver lining in the cloud comes to mind here.) But then just because one successfully sees such a silver lining materialize doesn’t mean that one won’t experience further challenges subsequently, often of an even greater magnitude (just ask Larry). Of course, such circumstances also raise the possibility of even greater rewards for surviving these later tests. (Think of it as metaphysically upping the ante, enabling the attainment of fulfillment beyond one’s expectations.) Letting go of one’s preoccupation with the “how” in this is crucial, though, something understandably difficult for analytical types like Larry, a physics professor who believes everything—even the essence of reality—can ultimately be understood from a purely mechanistic standpoint.
One’s perspective often makes all the difference in interpreting prevailing conditions, especially the meanings behind unenvisioned occurrences. This, again, comes down to a matter of beliefs, particularly as they relate to matters of perception, choice and openness to change. Consider, for example, the film’s opening segment, a fable sequence (unrelated to the main story) that sets the tone for the film’s central narrative. A husband and wife (Allen Lewis Rickman, Yelena Shmulenson) living in an Old World shtetl are visited by a mysterious stranger (Fyvush Finkel). The husband sees the stranger as a Samaritan for having helped him out of a jam on his way home, while the wife believes the stranger is a dybbuk (a malicious possessory spirit) and unhesitatingly stabs him. Because of his wife’s actions, the husband is convinced the family’s life and reputation have been ruined; the wife, on the other hand, believes her actions have protected the family against a walking evil. So who’s right? Similarly, in the main story, Larry continuously feels justifiably put upon; others, however, somehow feel he owes them. Once more, who’s correct? In either instance, it ultimately depends on one’s perspective—and how one accepts and applies it to the circumstances at hand.
I can’t speak highly enough about “A Serious Man.” It’s by far the best picture I’ve screened thus far this year. It’s striking in every respect, and it’s a movie that could be examined from a multitude of perspectives, far more than I could possibly discuss here. So my advice regarding this movie is simple—rush to see it.
And one more thing: please accept this recommendation in the spirit in which it’s given.
A lifelong movie fan and longtime student of metaphysics, free-lance writer/editor Brent Marchant is the author of Get the Picture: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies (Moment Point Press, www.momentpoint.com). His additional writing credits include contributions to beliefnet.com and to Divine Revolution and Reality Change magazines. Brent also maintains an ongoing blog about metaphysical cinema at www.getthepicturebrentmarchant.blogspot.com. He holds a B.A. in magazine journalism from Syracuse University and resides in Chicago. You can email him at email@example.com.