“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”Rashi
“The boss isn’t always right, but he’s always the boss.”Rabbi Nachtner, A Serious Man
Leave it to Joel and Ethan Coen to tunnel out a narrative wormhole from Rashi — a medieval rabbi famed as the first comprehensive commentator on mainstream Judaism’s Talmud — to Larry Gopnik, a nudge-nik Minnesotan Jew whose fracturing family might be trapped in an endless cursed cycle of indecision and loathing.
A Serious Man is yet another Coen Brothers masterpiece. It’s an existential Hitchcock movie crossed with Jewish spiritualism, a touch of mysticism and the Coen Brothers’ rigid insistence that the rates of mortality and morality are intertwined.
Here, forces threatening to swallow up one man are inescapably omniscient and frighteningly insurmountable. But, in the physics-professor parlance of Larry Gopnik, there’s a canyon-sized distinction between understanding the physics and knowing the math. When we merely surmise the specifics of grand-plan forgiveness and knowledge, what we make of human nature is all that truly guides us.
A Serious Man opens with a dimly lit folktale prologue about a dybbuk — the dislocated soul of a dead person who curses a home into which he’s been invited — and a thrust dagger that might permanently seal the fate of the Gopnik clan.
From this, the Coens cosmically deliver us into the 1967 world of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, sweaty, stunning and resembling a nebbish Joaquin Phoenix).
Quantum superposition is a fundamental law of quantum mechanics — defining the collection of all possible states an object can have. It’s a paradox also known as “Schrodinger’s cat” — the idea that a cat hidden in a sealed box is both alive and dead to the universe outside the box until someone opens it to look inside.
No one embodies this simultaneous life in breathing terms and death in emotional terms quite like Larry. A milquetoast professor sweating tenure at his college, Larry is practically disintegrating.
His wife is leaving him for the velveteen-voiced, psychobabbling Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed as a quintessentially condescending Coen creation). His brother-in-law Arthur (Richard Kind) is a hanger-on in his home, constantly draining his sebaceous cyst and perhaps losing his mind in the Mentaculus, “a probability map of the universe.” And his kids have dissociated and drifted from him more each day, his only function for them adjusting the antenna to strengthen F Troop’s signal.
Consider Larry, then, a twiddler on the roof — spineless and powerless to influence or change anything and rigidly concerned with boundaries and enforced codes. The repetition of even the most hellish things in his life creates a brutally comedic cadence — like Prometheus forever chained to all that’s around him. “I haven’t done anything!” is both Larry’s denial of wrongdoing and self-shame at his life’s worth.
So when a student tries to bribe Larry into a good grade, an anonymous tormenter tries to torpedo his tenure and the naked sunbathing neighbor introduces him to recreational pot use, Larry’s attempts at rationalization becomes a religious rigmarole from a trio of rabbis.
A Serious Man has its light Lebowski–esque cosmic moments — anything involving Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” and a Hendrix-scored parable about a plea for help on a man’s teeth — as well as inescapable Kafka-esque sick jokes (Larry’s harassment at the hands of a record club he has no memory of joining).
Plus, there are, no doubt, touches to trigger knowing, internal laughter for people of the Jewish faith. But A Serious Man’s discussion of organized religion feels universal all the way to central ideas of the Serenity Prayer. The idea of blind religious belief flies in the face of mankind’s fundamental instinct — or curse? — to question, rationalize and neatly compartmentalize everything else about our lives. (Gaze in fright at the thickness of those rabbis’ Rolodexes.)
But, like monolithic mathematical proofs and hypotheses, it is all that we can’t figure out in life on which we will ultimately be tested. “Why does Hashem make us field the questions if he’s not gonna give us the answers?,” one character asks.
That’s a question each of us asks regardless of what name we place on cosmic coincidence. So the Coens aren’t sneering at people beneath them, they’re sneering at themselves, at all of us — that if we don’t hold dear to our principles, what do we have?
The shocking ending to A Serious Man — a hair-raising piece of situational dread if ever there was one — is a beautifully damning illustration that overlooking even the most cursory aspects of our convictions can backfire on us. Like all fairytales, there is a message here — the tense sweep of a pencil becomes the equivalent of a dagger in the dybbuk.
Receive everything with simplicity. Do your own thing with it. A Serious Man never lampoons the idea of a supreme being in which so many people lovingly, unquestioningly place faith and before which so many kneel in supplication. What it does mock — mercilessly and memorably — is that without consulting our own moral compass, the only direction our decisions will take us is down.
Maybe that’s only just part of it, though. In its own way, it’s worthwhile to descend into its inexplicable madness just as Arthur does into his Mentaculus. That’s because A Serious Man is not a movie to be fully grasped upon a first viewing and, in keeping with one of the film’s ideas, even on the third or fourth viewing.
Demanding repeat visits to savor its depth, debate its themes and simply let its haunting, horrifying final image sink in even deeper on your psyche, A Serious Man is one of 2009’s greatest achievements.