A Serious Man [Filmmakers Bleed]
December 2nd, 2010 by Dan

Poster A Serious Man

"Don't you want somebody to love?"

I’ve seen four other Coen Brothers movies before I came to this one (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Burn After Reading) and while some of their movies (O Brother) tend to have a well-defined plot that makes sense (mostly on the basis of it being based on one of the oldest stories in history), most are blessed with a more realistic vision of life and the world around it. Like Burn After Reading, which immediately preceded it, A Serious Man is a movie about nothing in which random events seem to happen and no one understands why. Unlike Burn, ASM‘s perceived randomness stems from an examination of Jewish religious mythology and faith, in general.

Like most deities, the randomness of God, in the Jewish sense, is ascribed to be beyond human comprehension. The best we can do, per most religions, is to try and live pious, good lives and hope that things go well because asking that very human question, “Why?”, will get you absolutely nowhere. No one should know that better than the main character, Larry Gopnik, professor of physics at a midwestern university. Both of the lectures we see him deliver in the movie (Schrödinger’s Cat and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle) deal with conventional properties of physics meant to undermine our ability to perceive anything in this world, yet his personal philosophy is much more along the Newton’s Third Law variety. Actions have reactions. There is a first cause to everything.

Larry’s life begins to fall apart not long after the movie begins. One of his students is bribing him for a good grade, while his father threatens to sue him for defamation if he comes clean on it, his wife wants a divorce from him so that she can marry a more distinguished man, the subject of his tenure is up for review, but anonymous letters have begun appearing making claims against his moral fiber, and his socially awkward and unstable brother is becoming more and more of a nuisance in his home.

As the drama and tension escalates, Larry finds himself confronting rabbis at his local synagogue to try and make sense of it all. This is where the true beauty of the movie shines through. The first rabbi is young and obtuse to his problems while the second actually hits the point of the movie on the head. He tells a mythological and spiritual shaggy dog story, naturally with no point and no resolution, with the very real and brilliant moral that Larry should stop trying to make sense of why his life is crumbling and worry more about living his life.

There’s a brilliance in the way that this movie both tries to convince you that actions have consequences and that they don’t. At one point in the movie Larry and Sy, the man who is stealing his wife, get into simultaneous car crashes, only Sy’s is fatal. Surely the viewer is supposed to view this as karmic punishment for stealing away Larry’s wife, except it’s also the kind of bizarre coincidence that is absolutely meaningless and that happens every day. Not to mention the final scene of the movie in which Larry decides to take the bribe to help pay his mounting legal fees only to have a phone call come in from his doctor with ambiguous, but serious news the second he finishes changing the grade all while a tornado bears down on the Hebrew school at which his son attends.

The movie starts with Larry’s misery, shows the people who trouble him perhaps getting their much deserved karmic comeuppance once he begins living a more pious life, and then, at the last minute, things turn sour for him when it appears he turns away. Coincidence? Meaningful cosmic decision? That’s the point. Is there a point?

I’m being obtuse, but so are the Coen Brothers. Their intention was to present a midwestern Jewish community, much like the one they grew up in, while simultaneously exploring the futility of seeking meaning. The situations are unclear, the outcome of both Larry and his son Danny is left to the viewer, and we’re supposed to leave the theater feeling satisfied.

Even more perplexing is the fake Yiddish folktale told at the start. No mention of it is made again, none of the characters reappear, and the only real point, to the degree that there can be a point, is that it’s impossible to tell why things happen and whether the actions you make will have the right outcome.

I like this movie because it reminds me just how limited my attempts at attributing meaning to the ups and downs of life really is. If you absolutely require a true narrative arc with defined motivations, actions, and reactions, this is not the movie for you. Coen Brothers movies have a powerful ability to leave you feeling uneasy and uncertain about life and that’s precisely what I love about them. I can’t wait for True Grit to come out later this month.

3 Responses  
  • alex writes:
    December 29th, 201019:01at

    This movie seriously confused me. Granted, I was at a McMenamin’s when I watched it, so I was a few pints of Ruby in.

    • Dan writes:
      December 29th, 201019:18at

      I don’t blame you. The movie opens with a thematically consistent, but narratively nonsensical fake Yiddish folk tale and proceeds to be as absolutely pointless and poignant as the tale the second rabbi tells. Add a few pints in and you’ve got a movie that’s near incomprehensible.

      I think I love it most for the way that Larry suffers and reacts to the chaos that surrounds him. He has this exasperation mixed in with confusion, anger, and an all-around feeling of impotence that Michael Stuhlbarg brilliantly portrays.

    • Dan writes:
      December 29th, 201019:18at

      By the way, you named this blog when you gave me that t-shirt in high school. Thanks for that.

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