Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Movie of the Decade: A Serious Man

with one comment

With the Oscars tomorrow, I guess I’ll make my pitch for the Coen Brothers latest, A Serious Man. I’m not talking about Best Picture of 2009. I’m talking about best movie of the decade.

Perhaps I’m a bit biased. I love the Book of Job, my favourite book of the Old Testatment (or as I like to call it, the Bible). And A Serious Man fits perfectly into the long Joban tradition, which has had numerous American expressions, from Horace Kallen‘s 1913 play The Book of Job as Greek Tragedy to Archibald MacLeish‘s 1959 theatrical adaptation J.B.

The biblical book of Job exposes the cruel realities of living a moral life while at the same time defining what a moral life is: the righteous person pursues the good without hope for reward, as bad things do indeed happen to good people. Yet in A Serious Man, good and evil are more ambiguous, the protagonist is forced to make hard choices, unsure of which is right.

Beyond its biblical foundations, A Serious Man also creates a hilarious example of the venerable Jewish comic achetype, the schlemiel, the lovable loser. The OED describes the schlemiel as “an awkward, clumsy person, a blunderer; a ‘born loser’; a ‘dope’ or ‘drip’. I think the Jewish definition is more useful: “the schlemiel spills his soup on the schlimazel.”  Yet the image his changed, earlier schlemiels were often foolish, later schlemiels were often (pseudo) intellectuals. From Tevye the Milkman of Sholem Aleichem‘s short stories (and his broadway incarnation in Fiddler on the Roof) through Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud and Bruce Jay Friedman protagonists to Woody Allen characters, George Costanza and Larry David, the Jewish comic tradition, particularly the American Jewish comic tradition, has produced many great schlemiels.

Larry Gopnik, the schlemiel hero of A Serious Man, portrayed brilliant by Michael Stuhlbarg, may not join those illustrious ranks. But the whole film, with its hilarious characters playing on stereotypical Jewish neuroses, and its dark commentary on the absurdity of human existence come together to form a cinematic masterpiece. I’m not normally the biggest Coen Brothers fan (I loved The Big Lebowski but was lukewarm about Fargo), but to me, this was the best movie of the past decade.


Written by David Weinfeld

March 6, 2010 at 16:47

Posted in film, Jews, religion

One Response

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  1. […] A Serious Man, my pick for movie of the decade, a mere 106 minutes. Indeed, Woody Allen’s classic comedies of the 1970s typically ran about […]

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