Wednesday, March 31, 2010

An Insecurious Man

The latest film by Hollywood's best known two-headed dragon may best be described as a fable about fables. The problems that seem to befall the protagonist, Larry Gopnik, one after another are set in bas relief against the backdrop of the greater question that Jewish moralists have been attempting to answer for the better part of the last two thousand years: "Is it possible to have faith in Hashem (a word they use for God so they may not take the Lord's name in vain) in the face of all their people have endured?" As is the case with the entire movie, this question is left unanswered. 

The Coens seem content to raise such serious questions side-by-side with black humor that always seems to find Larry Gopnik at the receiving end without offering any conclusive answers. His problems are allowed to compound until well past halfway through the movie, forcing the unassertive physics professor to reticently turn to three rabbis for help and guidance. The first talks to him in platitudes, the second tells him a story even he doesn't know the meaning or significance of, and the third turns him away without seeing him. 

Towards the end, with Larry Gopnik at the end of his wits, delusional and wanting in faith finds his troubles resolved sequentially by unlikely remedies: his marital life appears to be turning a new leaf, his son manages to get through the Bar Mitzvah despite being high as a kite, he gets tenure at the university; but no sooner has he pocketed a bribe from a student that he has tried to refuse but cannot (for reasons best left for the audience to discover), a freak tornado heads for his hometown, and he receives a call from his physician asking him to drop by immediately to discuss his latest X-rays.

The Moral, or at least what I took home from it, was the Coens' reassertion that Hashem tries his favored children more than most, that He demands from them unswerving faith in the face of challenges no-one can be expected to endure,  with the only reward being a gradual lessening of these trials' severity - and the admonition that everything may yet come wantonly undone by a single, seemingly trivial, misdeed. This view is reinforced at several points in the movie: the funeral of one of Larry's tormentors, the following dialog with a rabbi.

Rabbi: Hashem doesn't owe us any answers, Larry.
Larry: Why does he make us feel all these questions if he's not going to give us any answers?

In the wake of the Holocaust and everything else the Tribe of Israel has suffered since the Diaspora in the first and second centuries CE, it's not surprising if their foremost grievance is "Why me?" The entire movie is built around that premise, and while it has been executed with pervasive dark humor, the final reaction it evokes is pity and not ridicule.

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