The Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, despite its numerous critical accolades and awards, failed to make an impression at the U.S. box office this past year. Perhaps this has to do with the lack of big name stars in its pitch-perfect ensemble cast (led by the Golden Globe-nominated Michael Stuhlbarg). Maybe. But perhaps it has more to do with the film’s subject matter. In writing of Goethe’s Faust, Friedrich Nietzsche commented on why the work held, in his opinion, little public appeal. He called it “a representation of the riddle propounded by modern times of the theoretical man who thirsts for real life—an enigma furthest removed from the world of the folk.” This assessment, oddly enough, is equally applicable to A Serious Man.
Here, I hope to demonstrate how the film, despite its apparent inaccessibility, is not simply “self-indulgent” or “pretentious” as some might be calling it. Instead, it is as carefully crafted and thematically potent as anything else the Coen brothers have produced thus far. It even ranks among their best.
Not long into the film, we’re with our protagonist, the middle-aged Larry Gopnik, a physics professor. It is 1970, and the setting is an unnamed Midwestern suburb. Larry is teaching Schrodinger’s paradox to a class of students. He asks: “Is the cat dead or is the cat not dead?”
The question echoes the curious fable that opens the film. In a small village in Eastern Europe, an old Jewish man returns home to tell his wife of his good fortune. He was on his way back from selling geese when the wheel came off his cart. Luckily, a man was there to help him: Traitle Groshkover. The man’s wife is horrified. She informs her husband that Traitle Groshkover has been dead for three years. He must have seen a dybbuk (the lost soul of a dead person). The man, being reasonable, brushes this aside. Besides, Traitle’s on his way over for soup.
After Traitle arrives, the man’s wife ends up stabbing him with an ice pick. But, as she explains: “He is unharmed!” This certainly appears to be the case—until blood begins soaking through his vest. He leaves with the question still hanging in the air: “Is the cat dead or is the cat not dead?”
After the lesson on Schrodinger’s paradox, Larry returns to his office. A Korean student, Clive Park, is there to meet with him. Clive wants to know how he failed the mid-term exam. He wasn’t expecting he’d have to know the mathematics. “I understand the physics,” he says. “I understand the dead cat.”
Larry responds: “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.”
Fables play an important role in A Serious Man. While in many ways existing as a fable itself, the film explores how fables work in everyday life. But the problem with fables, as Larry has indicated, is that they’re merely illustrations. They illustrate problems but provide no solutions. The solutions lie elsewhere—or else they don’t exist. With that in mind, the film seems to be about looking for answers (though none are to be found) and seeking explanations (though none are to prove adequate—or comforting). As Larry will soon discover, sometimes there just isn’t any “math” behind the apparent chaos of life, no matter how hard we search for it.
And the film’s initial dybbuk fable ends in precisely this manner: no math, no satisfactory explanation. We’re not even sure what role this story will play in the rest of the film. But before we know it, the setting changes, and we’re traveling down a long, dark tunnel. (Interestingly, the film’s aspect ratio also changes from 1.37:1 to 1.85:1.) In the tunnel, we can make out the faint sounds of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” It gets louder as we reach the end of the tunnel—and then we’re exiting the ear-phoned ear of a young Jewish kid in Hebrew school. This is Danny Gopnik, Larry’s son. His teacher is attempting to explain something in Hebrew to a class of bored students. Danny, obviously, is more interested in listening to rock music.
The journey down Danny’s ear canal is an unexpected and disorienting shift in perspective. Perspective, or the need to look at the world differently, with fresh eyes and outside of the usual paradigms, is central to the film’s exploration of the inadequacy of systems of explanation (i.e., Larry’s mathematics, the Jewish woman’s dybbuk folktales, or science and religion in general). In the dybbuk fable, the Jewish woman assumes that Traitle Groshkover cannot possibly be alive. She had heard all about his death, and the present circumstances perfectly fit her understanding of the concept dybbuk. But what if she had heard wrong? Or what if dybbuk is a false concept—a superstition? Then she will have just committed murder—and simply exploring a fresh perspective could have prevented it. But what if she’s right? The husband, a “reasonable” man, dismisses the dybbuk idea as foolishness, but perhaps he, too, can benefit from a fresh perspective.
Getting back to the narrative, while Danny is secretly listening to Jefferson Airplane, he’s also trying to get a twenty dollar bill to Fagle, a fellow student. But, as the teacher is circling the class, he discovers Danny’s radio and confiscates it—along with the twenty dollars hidden inside. It turns out that Danny owes Fagle the money for pot that he bought on credit a couple of weeks ago. Fagle had threatened to “pound the crap out of” Danny if he didn’t pay up. Danny’s goal for the rest of the film will be to avoid Fagle until he can get him his money.
That same night, Larry is at home grading papers when his wife hits him with a bombshell. She has grown close to Sy Ableman, Larry’s friend, and she thinks “it’s time to start talking about divorce.” Larry has trouble registering this, eventually spouting: “I haven’t done anything—what have I done?” This question marks Larry’s sudden realization that maybe he hasn’t done anything. What has he been doing with his life? How has he been so clueless to what has been going on around him? Has he been so caught up in work, in physics, in explanations, that he has lost sight of the world he is trying to explain? Maybe. Earlier, we see Larry watching his goy neighbor play catch with his son. He watches with bewildered curiosity, as if he simply doesn’t understand it—as if he is envious of it.
Larry’s new state of existential awareness is no surprise, as A Serious Man takes its cue from two of the great works of Jewish existentialism: the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. In fact, it can even work as a loose adaptation of the former. But the Biblical source material does not mean that we need interpret the film religiously. To illustrate this point, we again need look no further than the opening scene. Remember, the Jewish woman’s religious interpretation of Traitle is possibly misguided. Regardless, as Larry begins to meet one unfortunate event after another, mixed with some unexpected coincidences in his favor, those around him urge him to consult a rabbi. As his friend Mimi says: “We’re Jews, we have that well of tradition to draw on, to help us understand. When we’re puzzled we have all the stories that have been handed down from people who had the same problems.”
The first rabbi that Larry visits is Scott Ginzler, the junior rabbi. Larry was hoping to talk to someone with a little more life experience, but the young rabbi’s Heideggerian advice turns out to be quite relevant. He tells Larry that he, too, sometimes loses sight of Hashem in the world. But, as he explains: “You just need to remember how to see Him.” He then looks at the parking lot beyond his office. “If you imagine yourself a visitor, somebody who isn’t familiar with these…autos and such…somebody still with the capacity for wonder…Someone with a fresh…perspective.” And that’s the advice he gives Larry: “Just look at the parking lot.”
Earlier, Larry actually has one of Ginzler’s “parking lot” experiences, albeit accidentally. After Danny informs him that they’re not picking up the signal for F Troop on the television set, Larry goes up to the roof to adjust the aerial. It is a key scene. While on the roof, his neighborhood looks completely different. The screenplay reads: “An unfamiliarly high perspective on the street and the neighboring houses, almost maplike.” Larry tries adjusting the aerial, picking up some signals and losing others. But something else catches his attention. He walks cautiously to the edge of the roof and looks down into a neighbor’s backyard. He sees her sunbathing; she is completely naked. Is this the life that Larry has been missing? As he stares longingly at the woman, we might think of his previous pronouncement: “I haven’t done anything—what have I done?”
Interestingly, Larry’s son Danny seems perfectly in tune with Rabbi Ginzler’s advice. Not only does he smoke pot throughout the film, continually opening up new doors of perception, but he also listens to Jefferson Airplane. Though the film is scored by Carter Burwell, Jefferson Airplane features prominently on the soundtrack. Burwell’s score is haunting and ethereal, often melancholy, sometimes eerie, adding a wondrous, meditative quality to key scenes. Needless to say, the psychedelic rock of Jefferson Airplane complements this perfectly. “Somebody to Love” is front and center, but “Today” and “Comin’ Back to Me” are also used brilliantly. The songs not only evoke the late 60s in stunning artfulness, but the lyrics actually fit into the film’s thematic web. This is, after all, the band responsible for “White Rabbit.” Though not featured, that song is all about what to do when “logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead.” You need a fresh perspective.
To illustrate, when Larry is at Lake Nokomis talking with his friend Mimi, he enquires into the whereabouts of Danny and Ronnie, Mimi’s son. Mimi’s husband responds: “Woods. Exploring.” The boys are really off smoking pot. “Exploring,” indeed.
Then there is Larry’s brother Arthur. He’s staying with Larry because he can’t seem to make it on his own. He’s a bit of an outsider, visiting seedy bars and scribbling apparently illegible mathematical formulas into a notebook—something he calls “The Mentaculus,” a probability map of the universe. Apparently, it works. Arthur’s been winning at gambling (a crime that comes back to haunt him later). But because the Mentaculus doesn’t fit into any historically acceptable paradigm of mathematics, Larry just dismisses it. It’s Danny, not surprisingly, who’s willing to accept it. If Larry were willing to adjust his perspective, he might see how Arthur’s bizarre and unfamiliar system can potentially be as valid as any physics model he teaches in class. But Arthur remains a burden, an unexplainable anomaly—like the sebaceous cyst on the back of his neck.
A film this obsessed with differences in perspective needs a cinematographer that can translate the idea visually. Luckily, the Coen brothers have longtime collaborator Roger Deakins onboard. His compositions, from the moment we leave Danny’s ear to a later instance when Larry stares up at a glass while high on marijuana, help guide our own perspectives as they change with those of the characters. The highlight is the scene atop the roof. The camera, perfectly angled, moves ever so slightly as Larry examines his neighborhood from his new height, eventually (and slowly) revealing the naked sunbathing neighbor. Larry’s epiphany becomes ours.
As the film continues toward its conclusion, Larry continues to wonder what it all means. He decides to consult a second rabbi: Rabbi Nachtner. Nachtner tells Larry a fable about Dr. Leon Sussman, a dentist. One day, Sussman is examining a mold he had made of a patient’s teeth when he notices writing—Hebrew letters apparently engraved on the insides of the teeth. The letters translate: “Help me.” Sussman makes it his mission to figure out what the message means. He goes to great lengths, checking other patients’ teeth, transcribing the letters into their numerical counterparts, dialing the resultant phone number, all the while losing his appetite and losing sleep. Eventually, he decides to consult with Nachtner. And that’s the end of the fable. Obviously, this isn’t good enough for Larry. Frustrated, he asks: “What happened to Sussman?”
Nachtner recounts how Sussman eventually just got back to living life normally. Maybe Larry’s problem will eventually just go away as well.
“I don’t want it to just go away!” Larry exclaims. “I want an answer!” We may recall his previous assessment of fables as “imperfect” models: “The math is how it really works.” Larry is once again looking hopelessly for the “math”—that illusive, satisfactory, and comforting explanation.
Nachtner’s answer: “We can’t know everything.”
Later, the film’s ending returns us to the problem of paradox, as Larry is met with both promising and potentially devastating news. At the same time, in the Hebrew school parking lot, Danny finally attempts to pay Fagle back his twenty bucks. However, in the face of something greater, more powerful, and more awesome, the debt is temporarily forgotten—vanity of vanities. The final image is one that resonates, echoing at the same time the advice of Rabbi Ginzler: “Just look at the parking lot.”
We can make of this ending what we will. Some will read it as a commentary on the absurdity of life. Others will find a religious meaning, much like the Jewish woman in the film’s opening dybbuk fable. But just as her interpretation is potentially incorrect, so too are ours. When we’re done looking for the hidden meaning, like Dr. Sussman checking the backs of his patients’ teeth, we’ll at last have to get back to living our own lives. Ultimately, we’ll have to take the advice of Mr. Park, the Korean student’s father, when he attempts to explain to Larry a paradoxical culture clash between Larry and his son Clive. We’ll just have to “accept the mystery.”