I imagine that many Americans skipped right over the Coen Brothers’ 2009 film “A Serious Man” for many reasons — not the least of which is that the title does not exactly suggest a holiday tent-pole extravaganza. It also probably didn’t help that the film centers entirely on Jewish characters set in a Jewish community in a small American town. Sure, there are a few million Jews here in the U.S., but I’m not telling stories out of school by mentioning there are a hundred thirty million (or more?) folks who identify themselves as Christian.
The great thing is that we can learn much from those of other faiths without sacrificing our own beliefs and, hence, the value of “A Serious Man.” The film is about faith. It doesn’t matter how you cloak that faith in religious terms. The Coens have made a film that speaks universally to all faiths, and even to atheists. So while it happens to be set in a Jewish world, every single thing that happens could just as easily have happened to Christians or Buddhists or Muslims or Hindus.
And that is why you should see it. No matter what branch of faith you reside in, you will find plenty to identify with in this wonderful, dark, insightful, and thought-provoking movie.
There are spoilers ahead, but for now I’ll speak in generalities and a few specifics that do not impact the viewing experience and let you know about the big spoilers.
To Dybbuk or Not To Dybbuk?
The film’s central theme is replayed over and over again, which demonstrates the Coens’ outstanding writing talents. Every scene places the main character, Larry Gopnik, in a position where he is made to wonder — what the heck is going on and why is all this stuff happening to me? Sound familiar? Maybe the story of Job? Maybe your own life, or that of someone you know?
Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.
For anyone who wonders what the heck “A Serious Man” is about, the Coens state it right up front and the message is delivered repeatedly. In essence it is this: it is fruitless to ask “why?” We aren’t in a position to question God’s motives. All we can do is act in faith, be good, and find somebody to love.
Then comes this mysterious prologue.
Dybbuk? Human? Who knows? The Coens tell us: all you can do is act in faith. The complete quotation from Rashi is, “Conduct yourself with Him with simplicity and depend on Him, and do not inquire of the future; rather, accept whatever happens to you with simplicity and then, you will be with Him and to His portion.”
The wife did what she thought was right, coming from a place of faith. Will she be cursed? Will the husband? Will the body be found? What will become of the couple? Their descendants? The Coens tell us that not only should we, and they, not worry about it, it is pointless to do so. The events occurred. There was no reason why, they just did.
The Coens don’t even let us know if they think he’s a dybbuk. The end credits read, “Fyvush Finkel – Dybbuk?” However, I have an interpretation of this scene that goes deeper. Of course it’s a dybbuk. Not just because he gets stabbed in the chest, laughs heartily and exits without dropping dead, as he should — but because he inserts doubt and deception into the relationship of the husband and wife. Like Satan, this is a dybbuk’s purpose. The husband is left consumed with doubt. But the wife….ah! The wife remains steadfast in her faith and, consequently, her actions.
Faith vs. Doubt
And so it goes throughout the entire film, to the main character, Larry Gopnik. Is God punishing him? Who knows? But the fact is that Larry does not ever act out of faith. He remains steadfast in his doubt, and may (or may not) pay dearly for it in the end.
Now we move to the body of the film. Larry is first glimpsed discussing Schrodinger’s cat to his physics class. The lesson of this famous thought experiment is that until the box is opened and it is determined if the cat is alive or dead, either possibility exists. And once we open the box, we have disrupted the experiment, so we in fact can never know if the cat was alive or dead before opening the box. This scene, like almost every scene in the film, revolves around the same thematic element.
Larry’s wife is leaving him for a smug and condescending man by the name of Sy Ableman. Both he and Sy experience separate car crashes at apparently the same moment. Sy dies. Larry does not. Why? We don’t know.
Someone has been writing disparaging notes the to tenure committee at Larry’s university, as we await the committee’s decision. Later on, we learn Sy “wrote the tenure committee.” Are they one and the same? We don’t know.
His stern next-door neighbor — a Gentile — seems to have a personal dislike for Larry…and owns guns. Later on, as Larry is confronted with Mr. Park (see below), he comes by and asks, “Is this man bothering you?” Does the neighbor dislike Larry? Is he an anti-Semite as the film implies? We don’t know.
His unemployed homeless brother is living with Larry’s family while he writes “The Mentaculus”, a tome on something having to do with how the universe and probability works. Larry later finds it and it appears to be the scribblings of a madman. Is it? We don’t know.
Later in the film, during his son’s Bar-Mitzvah, his wife makes the first move towards reconciliation. Is it genuine? Will they reconcile? We don’t know.
Throughout the film, Larry is confronted with one crisis after another. He wonders why all these things are happening to him. He asks why God is doing this to him. Why is he being made to suffer? We don’t know.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
Wisdom? Yes and No.
He does what we all might do — seek out spiritual guidance. He goes to visit three Rabbis. The first seems to offer only surface platitudes. The second seems to offer a pointless fable. And he can’t even get in to see the venerable third, the one who might actually have all the answers.
In truth, however, each rabbi’s message is useful. The problem is that Larry isn’t listening — or hearing — what they say. In fact, the answers to all of Larry’s questions are right there for the taking throughout the movie, just as they always are for each of us. But Larry is so far removed in his relationship with God that he doesn’t see them.
The first rabbi’s point is simple: revel in the everyday miracles God provides us. The second rabbi’s point is that you’ll drive yourself crazy asking “why? Is any of what happens supposed to be a sign from God?”
As the second rabbi tells him straight out:
Larry: I want an answer.
Rabbi: Sure, we all want an answer. Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.
Larry: Then why does he make us feel the questions if he’s not going to give us any answers?
Rabbi: He hasn’t told me.
Accept The Mystery
It is the screenplay’s great triumph that every scene reinforces this theme over and over. Indeed, the subplot involving Mr. Park and his son Clive practically screams to the audience what the movie is about. Notice in the first scene how Clive sits in a chair in Larry’s office across from Larry’s desk, which we see in a wide shot . We see the top of the entire desk. There is no envelope.
Clive leaves. Larry makes a call. As he is dialing, Larry notices (via a POV shot) an envelope on his desk. It was definitely not there in the wide shots immediately before. We see that Clive doesn’t drop it on the desk as he exits.
It just appears.
How did it get there? Why is it there? We don’t know, nor should we even ask. It just is. And Larry is driven crazy when confronted with a real-life version of Schrodinger’s cat.
Park: This is defamation. Ground for lawsuit.
Larry: You’re threatening to sue me for defaming your son?
Larry: Let’s keep it simple. I could pretend the money never appeared. That’s not defaming anyone.
Park: Yes, and a passing grade.
Larry: Passing grade?
Larry: Or you’ll sue me?
Park: For taking money.
Larry: So he did leave the money.
Park: This is defamation.
Larry: It doesn’t make sense. Either he left the money or he didn’t.
Park: Please. Accept the mystery.
Accept the mystery. The message of the film. Again. One might even choose to view Mr. Park and Clive as angels sent to deliver a message to Larry — stop asking why, accept the mystery, and live your life — just like the Goy.
The third rabbi? That Larry doesn’t even get to see him is itself the message — the old man has no more wisdom than anyone else.
Indeed, Larry has been beset by a dybbuk known as Doubt. He needs to stab it in the chest and send it on its way. We hear him say throughout the film,”I haven’t done anything” in many different contexts. The subtext the Coens are providing us is that Larry is simply puttering through life. He is not doing anything remarkable. He is out of touch with his family, his wife, his brother, his students, and with God. He is even exiled out of his own home to a motel called The Jolly Roger — an obvious reference to a pirate ship, a ship without a port, without a home.
So what finally happens? With everything seemingly falling apart around him, jammed into a tiny motel room with his suffering brother, he awakens to his brother sobbing by the motel’s empty pool. The man is at wit’s end himself, in trouble with law, homeless and unemployed and probably crazy. He sobs, “Hashem has given you everything. He’s given me sh*t!”
And Larry shows compassion. He embraces his brother. It’s the first time we’ve seen an expression of caring for a fellow human from Larry. What follows is a dream where he sends his brother on a boat across a beautiful lake to Canada — using the money from the envelope. There his brother will be safe. It’s this moment of reaching out that seems to turn the tide for Larry. One by one, all the crises drop away and are resolved. It seems as if all will be well.
But this is a Coen Brothers film. They have shown us what the movie is about, over and over again. And as if to test us — Larry returns to his office, and it is implied that he will take the cash to pay an attorney to defend his brother, and give Clive a passing grade of “C-“. The phone rings. It’s his doctor. He has concerns about some recent tests — the kind of concerns where he needs Larry to come in and talk, but he is not specific. Simultaneously, his newly Bar-Mitvahed son and his classmates congregate outside a concrete building, as an old teacher fumbles with a set of keys so they can get in….for a tornado approaches. And as the tornado bears down….
What’s going to happen? What does it mean? If you are asking those questions, you haven’t been paying attention.
So we return to A Serious Man as a faith-based film that anyone can enjoy and yield great dividends from. The circumstances and questions that Larry faces are the same that we all face, and every religion responds in essentially the same way. We already know what Judaism says. I imagine Christians would assert that we are not one to question God’s plan, but to play the hand we’re dealt and have faith that He has his reasons. His Holiness XIV Dalai Lama said at a speech I went to, “There is no point in worrying about whether or not something is going to happen. If it happens, then it happens, and worrying about it won’t change anything. If it doesn’t happen, then you spent all this time worrying over something that didn’t happen.” Religious Science might say that once something happens, we have the power as individuals not only to derive a personal meaning from it, but by virtue of the fact that our mind has provided that meaning, then that is the meaning. We should thus act accordingly to make the best of the situation and use it in a positive fashion. Even atheists should look at the film and be heartened. God isn’t causing anything, so at the end of the day, you either press on or you give up regardless of the situation.
We, the audience, are even given the real wisdom of the film because we (but not Larry) get a message from the venerable Rabbi Marshak, delivered to Larry’s son after his Bar-Mitzvah. The message? He quotes Jefferson Airplane — the song that recurs throughout the movie.
When the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope within you dies…be a good boy.
And, we know the rest of the words. “Find somebody to love.” Because that’s all you can do, because God is love. Participate in what God is.
Then again….the ancient Rabbi was listening to the boys’ transistor radio and that’s the song that was playing. Is Marshak just senile and repeating what he’s hearing, or is it wisdom?
Or is it…? Or maybe…? What if….?
If you want to hear another perspective about this movie, have a look at Father Barron’s comments. He often comments on the spiritual messages of films.