Friday, October 23, 2009

Brother, Who Art Thou?

Having preached three consecutive sermons on the Book of Job, while preparing the climactic fourth I'd hoped to glean some fundamental insight about the meaning and purpose of suffering from the Coen brothers' Job-like tale, "A Serious Man." Instead-- No, that's not the right word. I'll say it this way: What I got was an ancient, perhaps ghostly rabbi named Marshak quoting a Jefferson Airplane song and even listing the members of the band (though he hesitated before saying Jorma Kaukonen):

When the truth is found to be lies
And all the joy within you dies

The rabbi shrugs and adds, "Then vat?" You'd think the character Marshak was interviewing would be the Job of the movie, math professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), but Larry, in spite of his proliferating troubles, can never get an appointment with the great man. He's actually talking to Larry's son, who's just been bar mitzvahed. Marshak's answer to the dilemma of suffering, as enunciated by songwriter Darby Slick (brother-in-law of Airplane lead vocalist Grace Slick)? "Be a good boy."

Loosely based on the writer-directors' Minnesota boyhoods, "A Serious Man" begins as Larry's life begins to fall apart. His wife leaves him, his wacky, suppurating brother is arrested on a morals charge, a student and his father blackmail him to get an F erased, and his own son gets him in dutch with the Columbia Record Club. You remember the gimmick. You got 12 free LPs for a dollar, after which monthly selections arrived unless frequently stoned '60s teenagers remembered to mail in the stop-order postcards.

That's the dilemma of suffering in a world God purports to love, aka theodicy. You don't do anything, and a bad thing happens anyway. Just as Job was visited by three know-it-all friends -- who tell him his suffering must be his fault, because he'd somehow offended God -- Larry seeks out three rabbis to help him understand why everything he'd thought was true has turned to ashes. The first and youngest spouts pat seminary formulas, while the second tells a inconclusive story about a dentist who found a message from God carved in a non-Jew's teeth. "What happened to the goy?" asks the exasperated Larry. "Who cares?" says the rabbi.

You already known about rabbi #3, Marshak. As it turns out, Larry doesn't need his advice. He already knows how to be a good boy. His one ethical lapse, which has to do with an unearned sum of money, occurs because he needs it to help his brother. If the movie's about anything, it's helping our brother, whether we're related to him or not. After all, as Larry says about school as well as life, "Even if you don't know what's going on, it will be on the midterm."

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