Since my original review of A Serious Man, it was nominated for 2009 Academy Award for Best Picture. While I certainly believe that A Serious Man was easily one of the best from 2009, it was never a favorite to win, especially with the new ten spots available for the top Oscar prize. It is too oddball and uncommon to have enough backing from the already too political Academy Award voting system. Regardless, A Serious Man is very much a serious film that offers a plethora of substance and meaning and stands proudly in the Coen Brothers filmography.
The Coen Brothers crank up the absurdity that they are so well known for with A Serious Man. Close to Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski, A Serious Man should be up there in terms of genius filmmaking that is meant to offer a comical nudge to serious subjects.
What makes A Serious Man such an important turning point for the Coen Brothers is how they chose their next projects after their 2007 Best Picture win with No Country For Old Men. Rather than turning up the notch with something far bolder, more mainstream, the siblings took a step back with Burn After Reading, which was a fresh step back from the intense, unstoppable force in No Country for Old Men.
The Answers Are In Front Of You
When discussing the Coen Brothers films, typically there is always an unusual unstoppable force, such as Leonard Smalls (The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse) in Raising Arizona and Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men—just to name a few. With A Serious Man, the Coens feature a force that is invisible. It could be God, fate, or even coincidence. It is an interesting way to give the meek protagonist Larry Gopnik a struggle that he has no control over. As each struggle arises Larry gets further and further from looking for or providing the one thing that is needed the most in his life and family, love.
As Larry’s life spins out of control, he simply looks to faith for answers. Each time he approaches a Rabbi he given an philosophical run-around. As the problems mount, Larry either loses more grip on his life or gains additional external struggles.
The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know… what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the mid-term.
More proof that Larry cannot accept his own wisdom. This Uncertainty Principle is the answer that is right in front of Larry and the audience. For a first time viewer, one cannot truly follow the events in A Serious Man, as each scene is uncertain up until the final moments of the film.
This principle is also in front of Larry. He simply cannot calculate what can happen in his life, but should take it in as it comes.
Why So Serious?
Who is the serious man? At first, you could say that Larry is the serious man. He uses logical and rationality in his life. Initially he rejects Clive’s bribe and seeks no revenge on those who appear to be harming Larry. However, many times in the film it is Sy Ableman who is labeled as a serious man. Sy even says it himself and Rabbi Nachtner mentions that Sy is a serious man to Larry during their discussion.
Sy Ableman appears to be a very calm, wise, and perhaps, a serious man. He gives Larry advice and reassurance during the revelation that Dora is leaving Larry. Sy’s unexpected death reveals the community’s belief that Sy was a seriously important figure.
Larry looks for serious answers for his serious issues and struggles. While the Coens present the viewer with many serious and strange stories, we are continually provided with comedic relief, albeit with minor giggles.
With all that happens to Larry, he merely takes it in. He never looks for revenge, only answers. Perhaps the greatest answer is from Rabbi Nachtner.
We all want the answer! But Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.
– Rabbi Nachtner
When the truth is found to be liesThe answers are all around Larry, yet the definitive answer that he looks for never arises. Each Rabbi that Larry meets provide him with wise, quirky stories that essentially leave Larry as confused as before. Larry never receives any answer and nothing is truly solved. All of his struggles just fade away. Sy Ableman dies, his wife returns, he gives Clive a passing grade, his son sails through his Bar Mitzvah, everything returns to normal. There is a very specific revelation in A Serious Manand it deals with scene where Danny meets Rabbi Marshak. The Rabbi speaks the famous lyrics from “Need Somebody to Love” from Jefferson Airplane.
and all the joys within you dies
Rabbi Marshak briefly ponders the line, makes remarks about the band’s members and hands Danny the cassette player back. While the film does not take the time to dive deeper into Marshak’s retelling of the famous lyrics, that line wraps up the film’s theme. The revelation that the known truths were lies, and ipso facto (Latin for “by the fact itself”, a line spoken by Arlen Finkle, Larry’s supervisor) the known contentment of Larry slowly dies. It is the chorus and title of “Somebody To Love” that offers us the advice we need to counteract the revelation of lies. These are not the lies as in untruth, but lies as in paradigm shift we often face.
Larry never looks for love in his life during the trials that occur. He apparently is losing his wife, but were they truly in love? He never remotely shows love to his children and his family appears to be mostly disjointed, barely functional. His brother, Arthur is a cyst living on Larry’s couch, just like the cyst that occupies Arthur’s neck. Love does not exist in Larry’s life. When the issues arose, one after the other, he never looked to loved ones, or looked for love at all. He looked for answers from his faith, which left him unsatisfied each time.
The questions that Larry often asks are usually answered with theories and ideas that Larry provides earlier in the film.
Practice What You Preach
If the Coens are doing anything they are creating a constantly self-reflexive story that not only frames Larry as a confused individual, but a confused individual that subconsciously answers many of the questions to his struggle. Consider the quote below from the scene where Clive Park, an Asian student arguing about his exam grade with Larry.
You understand the dead cat? But… you… you can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That’s the real thing; the stories I give you in class are just illustrative; they’re like, fables, say, to help give you a picture. An imperfect model. I mean – even I don’t understand the dead cat. The math is how it really works.
This piece of dialogue refers to the short prologue in the beginning of A Serious Man. It is a fictional Yiddish fable that essentially has no meaning to itself or the plot of the film. Larry directly says to Clive that the stories he provides in class just sets up the picture, and it is up to Clive, the audience, and even Larry to find the bigger picture and to find how it works.
Using two or more smaller ideas together allows us to gain another, higher idea is essentially montage. The Coens are using montage not in the idea of Team America, but in how two separate images or ideas, when placed together, allow us to understand a higher concept. The prologue, the Hebrew letters in the teeth, the lyrics of “Somebody to Love” are all fables designed to help use achieve a higher meaning, specifically the higher meanings and themes of A Serious Man.
The Jew Abides
Earlier I brought up Larry’s quote about The Uncertainty Principle. The film ends with Danny trying to give Fogle the twenty bucks that he owes. Yet Fogle, a bully, is more concerned about the ominous tornado that approaches. The scene and film ends with an abrupt cut to black.
The company I was with when I first saw this film felt unsatisfied with this ending. On the surface, an abrupt cut to end a film is a cop-out. But much like I fight for it in The Sopranos, I will fight for it for A Serious Man.
This abrupt cut to black is call-back to Larry’s Mention of The Uncertainty Principle, Schrödinger’s cat, the Yiddish prologue and Rabbi Nachtner’s tale about the Hebrew letters in the teeth. Beyond the call-back, this ending is actually ties up all the loose theories, stories, and struggles in A Serious Man. Essentially, we never know what is around the corner, and we can’t always have it both ways. Strange things happen and difficult struggles arise. It is how we choose to interact with the uncertainty of tomorrow and the actions of others.
A Serious Man is not meant to have a meaning that wrapped up in a tiny package. It is very much like a biblical tale where it is the individual who must extract meaning to create a story of morality.
A Serious Man features such a rich blend of philosophical, religious and absurd qualities, and it should easily stand up as a strong inclusion in the Coen Brothers filmography. Nearly all Coen Brothers’ films have achieved extensive cult status, sometimes years after their initial release. A Serious Man should have the momentum to become a cult classic alongside The Big Lebowski. With such a strange plot, odd characters and fantastic quotes, it is an instant Coen Brothers classic.