Thursday, April 8, 2010

Basically a good person

Several of my favorite films were made by the Coen brothers: The Big Lebowski, Fargo, and Miller's Crossing among them. I find those and several others eminently re-watchable — and I'll watch anything they make at least once. The most recent of their efforts I've seen is A Serious Man, and it took a few viewings before I began to appreciate it. This review, by Sonny Bunch, helped:
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. ....

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. ....

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. .... [more]
If you've seen the film, read it all. If you intend to watch it, wait.

A Serious Man? — Review — In Character, A Journal of Everyday Virtues by the John Templeton Foundation