Bloomington, Minnesota, 1967: Jewish physics lecturer Larry Gopnik is a serious and a very put-upon man. His daughter is stealing from him to save up for a nose job, his pot-head son, who gets stoned at his own bar-mitzvah, only wants him round to fix the TV aerial and his useless brother Arthur is an unwelcome house guest. But both Arthur and Larry get turfed out into a motel when Larry's wife Judy, who wants a divorce, moves her lover, Sy, into the house and even after Sy's death in a car crash they are still there. With lawyers' bills mounting for his divorce, Arthur's criminal court appearances and a land feud with a neighbour Larry is tempted to take the bribe offered by a student to give him an illegal exam pass mark. And the rabbis he visits for advice only dole out platitudes. Still God moves in mysterious - and not always pleasant - ways, as Larry and his family will find out. Written by
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No line gets a bigger laugh when the film plays in Minneapolis than Larry's divorce lawyer telling him "Hire Ron Meshbesher" to represent Arthur. Meshbesher is a real person, the most prominent criminal defense attorney in Minnesota for 40-some years, "The Guy" in the words of other lawyers. Thus, Larry learns that Arthur is more trouble than he'd imagined. This is a slight anachronism, as Meshbesher's reputation was not yet established by 1967. To make the significance of the recommendation more apparent to contemporary and non-Minnesota viewers, the script inflates the amount of Meshbesher's retainer a good bit from what it was in the late 60s. The scene was shot in the Minneapolis office of Meshbesher and Spence, and the address on the retainer envelope at the end of the movie is the actual address of the firm. See more »
Larry Gopnik teaches at a suburban college, but all of the mail he receives in his office is addressed to the zip code 55401. This zip code is in downtown Minneapolis, not the suburbs. See more »
You may have to be a believer (Jewish or Christian) to like this film, although some secular (at least middle-aged midwestern) Jews and others may find it worthwhile for the period details. It is a modern version of the book of Job, which--of course you remember--contains a prologue in which God and Satan bet on whether Job will remain faithful and Satan then strikes down Job's flocks, children, and health; a series of speeches by three comforters with Job's responses; a speech by Elihu who is unhappy with the advice of the three comforters; the Lord himself answering Job directly out of the whirlwind ('who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?'); a final submissive speech by Job ('I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye see thee, wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes'); and an epilogue in which Job receives more flocks and children (...) than he had before.
The book and the film address what (Christian, at least) theologians call theodicy, or how bad things can happen in the world when God, who supposedly controls everything, is supposedly good. For nonbelievers (if you have any interest in the subject), the best way to think of this is perhaps to ask yourself whether the universe (the Creation) is on balance a good thing ('and God saw that it was good'). If so, then perhaps we somehow have an obligation to live moral lives and (as Jews and Christians think of it) to follow God's law. If not, then perhaps it's every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost.
The Coens' answer, if I understand it correctly, comes out of the whirlwind at the end in the voice of Grace Slick. I personally prefer God's original response with its paean to astrophysics and evolutionary biology--'Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? ... When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? ... Gave you wings and feathers unto the ostrich? Who leaves her eggs in the earth, and warms them in the dust, and forgets that the foot may crust them or that the wild best may break them...; because God has deprived her of wisdom, neither has he imparted to her understanding'--which essentially asserts that Creation is wonderful and a package deal. But the Coens' very different answer, while oddly Christian in emphasis, is fully consistent with both the 1960s zeitgeist and with the midwestern Jewish community that they have so meticulously recreated.
If you like this film, you really need to see it twice. But without giving anything away, if you see it once, be careful to pay attention to (i) the bribe that, like Schroedinger's cat, is alive and dead at the same time and (ii) the whirlwind at the end. This is a great film.
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