A Serious Man is the Coen's take on the Book of Job. Like Job the lead here – Larry Gopnik is running into calamity after calamity, and like the book, our hero is frustrated by the hopelessly unhelpful advice of three supposed sages. In contrast to Eliphaz, Zophar and Bilhdad – who are largely indistinguishable from oneanother – here the three rabbis are, on one level at least, very different. The first is very young, crammed into a tiny office and thinks the car park is profound. (Take that American Beauty).
The second rabbi is more senior but equally vacuous. He lacks the youngers useful enthusiasm and has little to compensate save a bizarre story of a dentist who found one of his patients had Hebrew scribed into his teeth. Finally there is the elusive Rabbi Marshak. He has the biggest office of all and is protected by an officious secretary just so he can sit an think. Yet when we finally meet him – and it's not Lary but his son who gets the opportunity – he has little else to add to his colleagues trite aphorisms.
But I've skipped ahead of myself a little. The film opens in what is appears to be some part of Eastern Europe. Certainly it feels like a deleted scene from Fiddler on the Roof only with subtitles (which are apparently easier to read if half of them are not chopped off the screen by a lazy and/or incompetent projectionist). This prologue concerns a man who, like Gopnik, has been having troubles of his own. When a man helps him put the wheel back on his cart he invites him back to his house for soup. But when his wife hears the name of their guest she is horrified. The man has been dead several years. This must be a dybbuk (an evil spirit). Determined to prove her husband wrong she stabs their guest in the chest. He takes it very well, and only bleeds a little, but now the couple know that either way they are cursed. Either they allowed a dybbuk into their home, or they have just murdered an innocent man.
Given that this is the Coen's take on the Book of Job, it's fair to assume that this story is as critical to the rest of the film as Job's prologue is to it. Whether this is simply a parable illustrated or an account of Larry's ancestor's never becomes clear. The key, for me, is the way that this story relates to the film's core. Larry suffers and cries out to God, but hears nothing. By contrast, the man in the prologue gets help almost before he asks for it, but his unlikely helper takes his identity with him to his grave. The Coen's picture God saying you ask for my help and expect my intervention, but then when I did help you, you stabbed me in the heart. It's no doubt an mistake to interpret this thoroughly Jewish film in terms of Christian theology, but I find myself powerless to resist - the man who unexpectedly steps in to help is killed by those he came to save.
There is another reading of this opening that has occurred to me as well, that this man is indeed a dybbuk. He then becomes the Satan figure who is roaming the earth at the start of Job. The dybbuk is not angry when he is stabbed by the wife. On the contrary he praises her for her cunning. Satan also seems to have been impacted by humanity's shrewd decision making. So this opening scene could represent the incidents before the book's prologue. After all the Coen's have been so upfront about the fact that this film is based on Job that it would be fair enough to assume that their audience is familiar with the cosmic bet.
Betting rears it's head later in the film in the most unlikely of people, Larry's brother Arthur. Arthur is convinced he has figured out a system of probabilities for predicting the future, and whilst it seems to work at cards it doesn't fare so well in the field of predicting approaching policemen.
I'm not sure whether ultimately Arthur is meant to represent Job's fourth advisor, Elihu, the/another dybbuk, or God himself. In fact to push the allegorical nature of this story too far would be a mistake. My hunch is that he is the Elihu figure. He's less qualified than the three rabbis but his words are occasionally more on the mark. The directors (god-like figures) don't seem to condemn him as harshly as the rabbis, and there is certainly some truth in the scene when he tells Larry about all the good things he has.
Like her literary equivalent, Larry's wife is part of the problem not part of the solution. Perhaps anticipating the sinking nature of the good ship Larry she gets out at the sart of the film. She doesn't quite tell him to ("curse God and) die", but is equally if not more unhelpful than Mrs. Job.
Another thing that intrigues me about the film is it's time period. I've been surprised that nothing I've read about this film comments on the fact that the film is set in APril/May 1967 - just a few short weeks before the six days war in Israel. For a film that has been praised for it's refusal to dumb-down its jewishness, the absence of any direct mention of the impending war cannot just be an oversight. Not when maps of the Holy Land adorn various walls. Yet having made that observation I find it hard to know what to make of it. Is the territory gained in the war a sign of the restoration and blessing we find at the end of Job? That seems unlikely. Is the suffering of Larry being linked to the suffering of Israel or Palestine. Is the absence of God in the film suggesting his absence from that conflict? I honestly don't have a clue, but I'm sure it's of significance.
Ultimately the film ends with an impending storm which recalls rather vividly the opening words of the final section of Job (38:1) where God answers Job "out of a storm". Yet whereas this is the point where things begin to turn around for Job - he's humbled, yes, but also vindicated and the beginning of his rewards are just around the corner - it's also the point where things are about to really start going wrong for Larry. His son looks likely to die in the tornado, he himself is about to receive a serious diagnosis, and perhaps fail to get tenure. Is this because he has finally decide that God will not come through for him, and he may as well take the money and solve two problems in one transgression?
And what about the unlikily named Korean student Clive (C[see] and live?). He is also the very opposite of Larry. Larry understands the maths but, by his own admission, doesn't understand the picture of Schrodinger’s Cat. He can't handle the mystery. Clive on the other hand understands the less tangible things in life. He gets Schrodinger’s Cat it's just the maths he can't do.
One of my favourite comments about the book of Job was a joke made by a friend of mine that it's ending seems "a bit Hollywood". It's notable, then, that in what is probably the fullest exploration of Job yet to emerge in American cinema the 'Hollywood ending' is nowhere on the horizon.