I’m not sure where it started – perhaps studio publicists initially fed the convenient misinformation – but nearly every review of A Serious Man has described the film as a modern version of the Book of Job.
It makes me wonder if anyone has read Job lately.
Sure, the central figure in A Serious Man, the latest comic curiosity from brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, suffers a lot. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a Jewish physics professor in 1960s Minnesota whose wife wants to leave him, whose children openly despise him and whose chances of tenure are looking slim. He’s a relatively good man – his greatest crime may be his own insignificance - and so he spends much of the movie asking why such misfortune has come his way. No one – not his family, not a series of rabbis, not God – has an answer.
The surface similarities to Job are obvious, yet to read A Serious Man as a variation on the Biblical story is to mistakenly equate a middling Coen brothers movie with one of the richest books in the Bible.
Job, for starters, is not a comedy. To twist it into one is to belie the unsettling power of the original story (which could very well be what the Coens, whose method of filmmaking could be termed genre twisting, mean to do). Larry’s miseries, though real and troubling, are nothing compared to those suffered by Job, who endures the deaths of his sons and daughters as well as horrible physical afflictions. Indeed, if Larry had read Job, he might have felt better about his own situation.
If Larry had read Job, he might have felt better about his own situation.
Beyond that, the crux of A Serious Man – the joke, as the Coens see it - is that no one can explain why Larry has been targeted for misfortune. And while Job can’t explain his suffering either - many of his speeches can be boiled down to a single existential question, “Why?” - we, the readers, understand from the first chapter that Job is caught in a cosmic contest between God and Satan. After God points to Job as an example of a righteous man, Satan replies that Job is righteous only because he hasn’t suffered. Go ahead and try him, God replies.
No such spiritual gamesmanship is even hinted at in A Serious Man. The audience is left in the dark – frustrated – along with Larry. And while I’m fine with movies that lament the apparent absence of God, this isn’t the main function of the Book of Job.
That brings us to the most telling difference between the two tales. (Skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid a spoiler about the movie.) God is absent from A Serious Man until its final, unresolved moment. Shortly after Larry makes a rare moral misstep, a tornado – a literal force of judgment - bears down on Larry’s son and his classmates at school. Then the screen goes dark, bringing the film to an abrupt end.
God makes a similarly fearsome appearance in Job. When He finally answers Job’s demands for an explanation, it’s with a litany of examples of how nature reflects His omnipotent might and power. How dare puny man, God demands, question Me? It’s God as tornado, yes, yet after He has put Job in his place, God forgives him for his impertinence, praises him for his steadfastness and eventually replenishes all that he had lost, and then some.
The Book of Job, then, is at once more devastating and more hopeful. The story sends us through an emotional wringer. A Serious Man, its supposed counterpart, is lightweight - puny - in comparison.