A Serious Man?
We live in a time where the absence of evil is treated as a good unto itself, where paying your taxes, staying loyal to your spouse, and treating people decently - things that are all expected of us but not particularly praiseworthy in and of themselves - are all it takes to be considered good. It's the bigotry of soft expectations writ large, a sign that our expectations are so soft they're practically butter.
Many of the critiques of the latest Coen Brothers film, A Serious Man, began by comparing the struggles of protagonist Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a college physics professor in the midwest, with those of Job. The New York Times' A.O. Scott, the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert, and the Washington Post's Anne Hornaday, among others, made reference to the Book of Job and poor Larry's varied predicaments: His wife is leaving him, a South Korean student named Clive is attempting to bribe him (and then threatens to sue Larry for defamation for pointing out that he is under an ethical obligation to report the bribe), and his world is just generally falling apart.
The point that the critical corps was making is relatively simple, that Larry is a good man who has been made to suffer a seemingly endless series of trials for no apparent reason. God, it would seem, is testing our hero.
One must consider, however, that Larry is not actually a good man. Oh, we're given no reason to think he's a bad man when the movie begins, certainly: We don't see him committing crimes or cheating on his wife or beating his children. He seems like a decent enough fellow, a kindly nebbish whom we certainly feel sympathy for as he struggles with his plights and tries to come to grips with what Hashem wants from him. There's no doubt that the audience wants him to be happy and find his place in the universe.
As events in the film later show, however, appearances can be deceiving. An absence of bad is not the same thing as the presence of good, and herein is Larry's problem. He's so passive and so unable to take charge of his own life that it is easy to understand why such a wave of misfortune is now rolling over him.
If Larry has a mantra in this film - as most Coen Brothers protagonists tend to - it's "I haven't done anything." When his wife greets him with the news that she wants a divorce and a "get" so she can remarry Larry's best friend within their Jewish faith, he replies "A divorce? What have I done, I haven't done anything." When he's approached by a representative of the Columbia Record Club and questioned about his lack of payment for a record they sent, he replies "That's right, I haven't done anything" and, in one of his few moments of forcefulness, follows up by reiterating "I didn't do anything." When the head of the tenure committee at Larry's university stops by to see if there is anything they should know about - other publications, perhaps - Larry plaintively replies "I haven't done anything. I haven't published."
After that last comment, a reply comes: "Don't worry - doing nothing isn't bad, ipso facto." And that's true. Passivity, in and of itself, is no crime. But passivity isn't the same thing as goodness, now is it?
It's instructive to look at the active steps that Larry finally takes to improve his life as the movie winds to its conclusion. On the advice of the Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner) - who concludes a meandering fable about a dentist who finds Hebrew lettering on one of his goy patient's incisors with the words "A sign from Hashem? Don't know. Helping others? Couldn't hurt" - Larry decides to be a little more proactive.
He extrapolates the tale to mean that he should help his neighbors, or so we at first believe. It becomes obvious, however, that he is less interested in helping his neighbors than sidling up to the sexpot who lives next door - a woman he previously watched sunbathe in the buff without her knowledge - and sharing some primo weed with her. In his first foray into activity and out of passivity, he begins to covet his neighbor's wife. This isn't a good start.
But it gets worse. Faced with mounting legal bills brought on by his no-good brother, Larry decides to pocket the bribe offered to him previously, changing Clive's grade from a failing grade to a C minus.
I think it's fair to ask: Are these the actions of a serious man? Are these the actions of a Job-like figure? Most importantly: Are these the actions of a good man? It's important to note that Larry's forays out of passivity and into activity are fundamentally rooted in immorality. He's a put-upon man in a tough spot, there's no doubt about that. But does that excuse his behavior?
In the eyes of Hashem - and the Coen Brothers - it appears that the answer to that question is no. Immediately upon changing Clive's grade the phone rings; Larry looks at it in horror, perhaps realizing the gravity what he's just done. It's his doctor with what we assume is bad news about a series of X-Rays Larry had taken earlier in the film - news so bad he won't relay it over the phone.
Then, as if to remind us that the sins of the father are revisited upon the son, we cut to Larry's youngest, Danny (Aaron Wolff) who is caught in the path of an oncoming tornado. That closing image is one of pure existential dread, a moment that sears into the memory. If this is a punishment, it's a doozy.
It says something about the nature of our culture that so many people have simply gone along with the idea that Larry is a fundamentally decent guy and, therefore, good. It is especially shocking considering the things we actually see Larry do as the film progresses. We live in a time where the absence of evil is treated as a good unto itself, where paying your taxes, staying loyal to your spouse, and treating people decently - things that are all expected of us but not particularly praiseworthy in and of themselves - are all it takes to be considered good. It's the bigotry of soft expectations writ large, a sign that our expectations are so soft they're practically butter.
But, as I hope I have made clear, being empty of evil is not equivalent to being full of good. Passively watching the world go by and keeping your head down - doing your work, living your life - is not the same thing as helping the poor, performing charity, and generally making a difference in the world. There are two entirely separate concepts, but the distinction appears to have been lost in recent years. This moral confusion sets us on a path not unlike Larry's. One wonders in which form our tornado is going to come.