The Coens for Lent – A Serious Man

The fifteenth of nineteen reflections on the Coen Brothers’ filmography and the season of Lent. [View Series]

by guest writer Corey Vaughan

The final moments of A Serious Man play for me, beat by beat, whenever I hear the song “Somebody to Love”. Larry Gopnik getting the ominous phone call from his doctor, the old Jewish teacher fumbling for the keys to the basement, Danny Gopnik yelling out to Fagle (the equally ominous yet silent class bully), Fagle staring blankly at the impending tornado. The scene is brutal, somehow more brutal than the tornado that is Larry Gopnik’s life. And as the song itself addresses the question that Larry has been asking for most of the film, the audience agrees with the answer – yes, we also want somebody to love.

The question, one Larry can barely bring himself to ask (does he ever even say it out loud?), is something that is still felt loudly. Upon meeting with the second of three rabbis in the film, Larry begs for spiritual relief, saying, “but why does he make us feel the questions?” He is speaking to what the audience has already witnessed – a bland, albeit honest and hardworking, husk of a man having to hold the tensions and pains of life. Like Job of the Old Testament, everything happens to him at once. His wife is leaving him for family friend Sy Ableman, his children despise him, and his goy neighbors are encroaching on his property. And every night, his jobless, gambling-addicted, idiot-savant brother, Arthur, locks himself in Larry’s bathroom and sucks bodily fluids out of a sebaceous cyst. He acts as a Sisyphusian reminder to Larry: hard work does not lead to an easy life, only more pus.  

This is the true spirit of Lent: feeling the questions. Jesus asked God, “Will you remove this cup?”, but felt so much anguish that he sweat blood. On the cross, the feeling of God’s absence was so intense and present that he asked, “Why have you forsaken me?” When Thomas feels the scars on Jesus’ hands, feeling the questions becomes literal, physical. Larry Gopnik reminds us, like Job and Jesus, that asking and feeling arrive hand-in-hand.

But is there an answer to the questions we feel? While the Coen Bros usually avoid any meaningful prescriptive lessons in their work, A Serious Man manages to provide the viewer with some form of an answer. Larry asks all of his temple rabbis for the answer – they mostly shrug and say, “Who knows?” The answer is given directly (though not explicitly) to his teenage son, Danny. Upon finishing his bar mitzvah, he gets to spend a few moments with the wisest man in town – Rabbi Marshak. The old man quotes a familiar lyric: “When the truth proves to be lies; and all the hope within you dies”. He nods at Danny and asks,  “Then what?” The teenager knows the answer, as does the viewer. We’ve heard this song once and will hear it again. We need somebody to love, so we must find somebody to love. Love is a word never spoken in A Serious Man. The closest word is “loveless”, used to describe Sy Ableman’s relationship with his deceased wife. In fact, all relationships in this film could be described as loveless. When Larry’s life around him proves to lie and die, when pus fills a cavity, when marriages fail and children roll their eyes, and when cancer comes and the tornado drops, there is particular weight to this loveless movie bookending with Jefferson Airplane. Lent is feeling the “why” of sickness and failure and death – and it is about finding somebody to love.

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