A Serious Man, 2009 / The Coen Bros.

a_serious_man_posterIt’s a film I really love (big big fan of the Coen Brothers generally), but I have postponed writing about it until after my third viewing, which happened last night. Mainly because I have the feeling that trying to decipher A Serious Man is somewhat foolish. For one, I’m not Jewish and have no deep knowledge of Jewish religion and customs. But then, nobody really reads this blog anyway. And also, this is a film that tickles you, urges you to discuss with friends and attempt deconstruction. So let’s try kinda going scene by scene, definitely spoiling the movie for anybody who hasn’t seen it…

Of course, the relation of the opening scene to the rest of the movie has garnered plenty of media attention. It’s rather a vignette set two centuries prior to the main action in the film. A Yiddish family is faced with a weird (in a very Coen Brothers way) encounter with an old man, whom the wife sees as an evil spirit, a dybbuk. We are not really given the answer is he or isn’t he, and respectively is a righteous act committed, or a crime. But we are left with thoughts about “the sins of our predecessors and how they reflect on the next generations”. Maybe this is what this scene is about…

Next, we meet the main character, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). He is already on a sloping plain towards the disintegration of his so far stable and respectable life. Actually, his story reconfirms the Coens’ reputation of being quite cruel to their main characters. Larry undergoes a thorough medical check, including an X-ray scan, and it all seems to be fine, as far as health is concerned.

Meanwhile, his son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), has problems of his own. He owes 20 bucks to a bully of a classmate, but they get confiscated, together with the portable radio on which he secretly listens to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love”. It’s here that the drug references start to pop up, and it’s difficult to find their relation to the whole story. Danny frequently smokes marijuana, and Larry himself indulges in a smoke later in the movie, but not before he has seen his world collapse. Is doing drugs the suggested antidote to the ultimately pointless struggle towards respectability, stability and logic? Danny uses because he is young and still innocent, his mind unburdened with questions of “why?” or “what is the reason for this?” On the other hand, Larry uses after he starts finding out that these questions probably have no answer, or that the answer is seemingly out of his reach. And then, this Jefferson Airplane song echoes through the entire movie, preaching psychedelia and nothing else but love…

The next problem crashes upon Larry’s head in the shape of Clive, a student (Larry is a physics teacher) disgruntled with his F grade, who seems to try to bribe Larry by discreetly leaving him an envelope with cash. Larry would try, unsuccessfully, to extract himself out of this embarrassing situation, all the while expecting the school’s decision on granting him a tenure.

At home, the problems keep mounting. His Nazi/extreme Republican-looking neighbour is obviously trying to claim a portion of Larry’s own front yard. Larry’s brother lives with Larry’s neurotic family and doesn’t seem to come out of the bathroom, let alone start looking for a place of his own. And Larry’s wife demands a ritual divorce, informing him of her closeness with fellow Jew, Sy Ableman.

Back at school, there follows an amusing scene involving Larry and Clive, the disgruntled student. Larry confronts him on the issue of the attempted bribe. Larry wants Clive to understand that actions always have consequences, while Clive agrees that “yes, they have consequences OFTEN”. This seems to enrage Larry, who for the first time mentions his moral convictions. Actions have to have corresponding consequences, right? And Larry has been a good man, a serious man all his life, trying to be morally upright, always trying to do the right things. So, the consequence to this has to be a good, morally upright, stable life. Not much to ask, right? Well, suddenly this does not seem to be the case with Larry, and he’s getting more and more lost with every new misfortune that comes crashing upon his head.

In a following scene, Sy Ableman, unable to get in touch with Larry, appears at his doorstep. Sy is a superficially gentle, kind, soft-spoken, but also oily, large-framed figure. A truly passive-aggressive man, he professes his love for Larry (and seemingly all human beings), touches, caresses and hugs him, while trying to talk him into agreeing to a “gett”, a ritual divorce that would allow Sy to marry Larry’s wife “in the faith”. Later, it will be suggested that Sy has written anonymous letters to the school committee responsible of the decision on Larry’s tenure, slandering him. Sy could be viewed as a figure inspired by the Devil, though this is in no way consistent with the fact that Sy actually dies in a car accident – thus providing Larry with a measure of relief in his misfortunes.

It’s relevant to mention that A Serious Man seems to be based – or inspired by – the biblical story of Job. A blessed, righteous man, Job was confronted with a series of great misfortunes. They happen after Satan challenges God, claiming that Job is faithful to God simply because God protects him. As a result, God removes his good will towards Job, to prove Satan that Job’s faith is true – and more importantly, that Job’s faith will remain firm even if Job is given no answers why misfortune has befallen him. Job proceeds to look for explanations for his misfortune, consulting three friends (the three rabbis in A Serious Man are a clear parallel). But he never turns against God, and is later rewarded with the restoration of his wealth, health and good fortune. Something the Coens do not do with their own Larry, hmmm…

Urged repeatedly by Danny to fix the TV aerial on the roof, Larry climbs up, and sees the wife of one of his neighbours, sunbathing full naked. Temptation is brought into the story, but to the morally correct Larry this simply seems like one more piece of misfortune.

In yet another enchanting scene with Sy Ableman, it is suggested to Larry that he should move out of his home and to a hotel. I can’t help but mention Sy’s extraordinary vocabulary – he refers to the hotel’s room as “eminently habitable”. Fred Melamed’s performance as Sy is a joy to observe again and again.

There follows a scene that seems quite important to me. Clive’s father comes to visit Larry, and threatens to sue him for defamation – for suggesting Clive has tried to bribe him. When Larry offers that they simply forget about it all, the father demands that Larry gives Clive a passing grade. Larry declines. Then the father says he’ll sue him – for accepting a bribe. Larry counterattacks: “So there was actually a bribe?” The father counter-counterattacks: “This is defamation!” Larry does not see the sense in this – either there’s was a bribe, or there wasn’t. Accept the mystery, is the father’s response.

The thing is, Larry is unable to accept the mystery. He needs answers why this is all happening to him. Unable to find them in logic or moral laws, his next step is to turn to a rabbi.

Before his visit to the first rabbi, Larry expresses the questions on his mind verbally for the first time, in a conversation with a female friend.

The first rabbi is actually rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg from “The Big Bang Theory”), the young deputy of rabbi Nachtner, whom Larry goes to see originally. Inexperienced but passionate, rabbi Scott gives Larry probably the most useful, and definitely least obscure advice out of the three rabbis. Still, this advice does nothing to help Larry decipher the cause of his misfortune and see the path he should take.

The second rabbi, rabbi Nachtner, chips in with the extremely amusing and well-shot story of “The Goy’s Teeth”. Basically, it’s another instance of Larry having his hopes of finding explanation dashed, in a way that actually increases his confusion. The second rabbi is older, presumably wiser, and his advice is ultimately… blander. To Larry, it now seems being wise has to mean being bland, being non-active, not really caring. His universe is shattered. However, Larry continues to see this new situation as a chapter in a story – something has to happen, this is not the end of it, there will be developments that will shed light on all the confusion. So he is now desperate to see the third rabbi. The fact that that third rabbi – rabbi Marshak – is impossible to through to, only spurs Larry on, increases his frustration, but somehow preserves his dying hopes of clarity still alive.

Soon after comes a scene where Larry teaches a class at school about “the uncertainty principle”. Scribbling a large blackboard full of complex mathematical formulas, he proves by the means of mathematics (probably his only pillar of stability left in the world) that… nothing is certain. As his students leave, he shouts after them that even though they can’t figure anything out, they would still be responsible for this at the exam.

Larry then knocks on the door of Mrs. Samsky (the neighbour’s wife which he saw naked before). I guess what takes him there is some parts desperation, some parts an instinctive, unrecognized drive to look for solutions in places where he wouldn’t venture in his “normal” life, if his mind was still intact. In a sexually charged scene, Mrs. Samsky, who at times frighteningly resembles a lifeless mannequin, gets him stoned on marijuana. For Larry, it’s a mental state of detachment that briefly puts him out of his misery. We are left to wonder if this would be the only recourse left to his character after the end of the film…

The story line involving Larry’s brother, Arthur (brilliantly clumsy Richard Kind), is curious. He seems a bit autistic, definitely neurotic, possibly suicidal man, obsessed with creating/figuring out the Mentaculus – a probability map of the Universe. He actually uses it to rake in money at out-of-town casinos. The funny thing is, Arthur is a social outcast, a man without a family or an own home, emotionally depressed, and only good at mathematics. he’s been like this all his life. After two-thirds of the movie, it seemed to me Larry is pretty much in the same position – about to lose his family, living in a hotel, totally lost, his moral universe crumbling with a mocking thud. So I guess the figure of Arthur is in the movie to pose the question: so what if Larry has always been the more successful of the brothers, when both they end up pretty much the same? What has been the point in creating a social structure and believing in some unnamed natural laws, when everything can evaporate in a flash? Who’s better off? Possibly sensing this, Larry dreams of helping Arthur escape (in a row boat!) and start a new life in Canada. This dream ends with Larry’s Nazi-looking neighbour shooting Arthur in the head, then going after Larry himself…

A scene that closes the cycle of the “three rabbis” shows Larry desperately trying to make his way past rabbi Marshak’s door, only to be rebuffed. Has Larry met the ultimate failure?

And as it appears as if it cannot get any worse… it doesn’t. Rays of hope break through the clouds above Larry. His son, Danny, passes his Bar Mitzvah, an occasion for the family to get together and feel hope for the next generation. Sy Ableman is gone and there is a hint that Larry’s wife might have a change of heart and take him back. The slandering letters sent by Sy Ableman have stopped, and the school committee finally grants him his tenure. At the same time, Danny is granted access to rabbi Marshak, who gives him the most obscure of advices – quoting the omnipresent Jefferson Airplane song, and restoring to Danny the portable radio. How this radio has found its way to the hands of this biblical looking old man is a mystery which the Coen Brothers willingly leave unresolved. But, innocently, Danny seems to understand what his meeting with rabbi Marshak is all about.

We have arrived at the happy end. Larry is genuinely relieved. he has received no answers to his dilemmas and questions, none at all. He does not understand the logic behind the myriad of bad things that have happened to him. But his condition has been remedied, so he has “accepted the mystery”. Maybe he will now have a new life credo – simply to accept what is happening to him, without trying too hard to make sense of it. There is no point, right? Besides, it would eventually all end up alright. Normalcy would be restored. There is no such thing as a cause-and-effect law in this world. Larry is actually so relieved that he wants to be good – he decides to correct Clive’s grade to a passing one. After all, this was the advice of the second rabbi, rabbi Nachtner: “We know nothing at all, but as for helping others? Coudn’t hurt.”

So Larry helps Clive. In the next instant, his phone rings. His doctor – remember, the one giving Larry a general medical check at the very beginning of the movie – wants to discuss with Larry his X-ray results. In private.

So Larry probably has cancer, we’re led to believe. Why is this so? Is it a mystical consequence of Larry’s action – betraying his morals by changing Clive’s grade? But no, because the X-ray tests were done much earlier. We, people, are the one choosing to “read signs”, design our own imperfect explanations of the inexplicable, search for archetypal story arcs in our daily lives, believe in the power of the combination “action-consequence”. According to the Coen Brothers, all we need to do is to accept the mystery. With the good and all the bad it brings us. Asking questions and looking for their answers is absolutely pointless, in the grand scheme of things.

But then, we are only humans…

Such a great movie…

Leave a Comment

The personal website of director Ivaylo Minov

I am a Bulgarian-born filmmaker working between Sofia and London. Over the last six years, I have been directing TV commercials for agencies like DDB, Leo Burnett, Lowe Swing, Publicis, Huts JWT, Demner Merlicek & Bergmann. I have worked for a wide range of clients – from mobile telecoms through charities to a viral campaign for a presidential candidate at the 2011 elections in Bulgaria.

I have a film making diploma from the London Film Academy, following a BA degree in Journalism by the American University in Bulgaria. I have worked in media and theatre, before discovering my passion for film making and turning it into a full-time devotion.

Find me at:
liaminov (at) gmail.com
0044 7757 428696 (UK)
00359 886 880564 (BG)

open