A Serious Man: On Sex, Manhood, and Not Thinking
By Jason Haggstrom, March 30, 2011
"This is not about… woopsie-doopsie."
So says Larry Gopnik’s wife, Judith, in the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man. But can we really be so sure about that? In "The Search for Answers in A Serious Man," I wrote that "A Serious Man exists as a parable about humankind’s inability to understand the will of God and how we must learn to deal with this lack of understanding." I still believe that and see it as the dominant reading of the film, but what if we look at the film through a different lens and consider that, perhaps, Larry’s real problems are more… primal.
Larry fears that he’s missing out on something. Between Sy’s remarks in Larry’s dream, Arthur’s arrest for soliciting sodomy, and Larry’s fantasy about Mrs. Samsky, it is clear that Larry’s problems might not just be about understanding Hashem, but about his anxieties of a more carnal nature. While Larry has been busy not doing anything, everyone else seems to be doing a whole lot of something. Things that are outside his sphere of understanding. Everybody around him seems to be having experiences that he is not. That includes his son, Danny, who is well versed in "the new freedoms," listens to Santana and Jefferson Airplane (as compared to the Jewish folk music of Sidor Belarsky that soothes Larry’s mind after a trying day), and is more likely to use modern swear words than anything that is being taught in Hebrew class.
"I’m a serious man, Larry."
Larry knows there has to be more to Sy Ableman than meets the eye. And he’s not the only person who is shocked by Judith’s involvement with him ("Sy Ableman!?"). After all, Sy is overweight, unattractive, passive-aggressive, and a bully. What, exactly, does Judith see in him? Next to the meager Larry, Sy is a man, an able-man, and—as Rabbi Nachtner describes him—a "serious man." And, of course, Sy knows all about those grown-up things that Larry is completely in the dark about. Like wine ("This is not Mogen David, Larry. This is a wine, Larry. A Bordeaux."). And sex.
The only obvious answer—the one that builds deep in Larry’s subconscious—is that Sy Ableman is an absolute animal in the sack. Larry’s true anxiety about Sy is revealed in his dream where Sy yells, "I fucked your wife, Larry! I seriously fucked her!" while repeatedly slamming Larry’s head against the blackboard as if he were a schoolyard bully.
"Nailing it down. So important."
When Larry goes to visit Mrs. Samsky he obviously doesn’t want to help her "in a neighborly way." Larry’s not exactly looking for an after-school job (though Danny’s already got this whole teenage job thing all figured out—he simply gets his money from Uncle Arthur). Larry wants to convert the object of his voyeuristic affections into something tangible. He wants to feel like a man again in the most primal way possible. He wants to shtup her. But Larry’s deficiencies in the bedroom are pointed out once again when his passive attempts at seduction are interrupted by Arthur’s arrest for soliciting sodomy, then again when Mrs. Samsky and Arthur share a "hello," giving Larry the impression that even his sebaceous cyst-draining brother was able to shtup the foxy neighbor. Larry doesn’t even set the bar very high in his sexual fantasies. When he dreams of being banged by Mrs. Samsky (her on top, Larry just laying there, not doing anything… as we’ve come to expect), she appears bored while Larry seems to be having his world rocked. One doesn’t get the impression that Larry has ever actually had a really, really good time in bed. Even in his dreams, Larry doesn’t know how to "seriously fuck her" like Sy, the "serious man," could—she has to do it for him. And the fact that he doesn’t even imagine her naked, even after seeing her sunbathing in the nude, makes me wonder if he even can. Is Larry’s sexual mind (not to mention his actual experiences) really so limited?
"Larry, don’t be a child."
A Serious Man also recognizes that the Bar Mitzvah, while being a ceremony of religious tradition, doesn’t really make somebody a man, or at least not a "serious man." If that were the case, one could become a man by doing nothing at all (waitaminute… yup, that definitely describes Larry). I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode, "The Serenity Now" (perhaps Larry should simply yell that to the heavens like Frank Costanza) where the recently Bar Mitzvahed Adam Lippman bellows "I’m a man!" after French kissing Elaine. George later remarks, "Wow! I didn’t try that ’til I was 23." Elaine eventually tells Adam that being Bar Mitzvahed doesn’t really make him a man, prompting Adam to renounce his religion yelling, "this whole thing was a sham!"
Has Larry actually done anything ("I haven’t done anything!") to become more of a man since his being sanctioned as one at his own Bar Mitzvah? Consider the opening (post-prelude) and closing shots of the film and how they bookend the story around the perspective of Danny. And what of the dialectical montage created by the shots of Danny’s and Larry’s ears in the opening? Although the story on the whole is Larry’s, these shots tell us that his perspective on life isn’t all that much different from that of his son. The film also comments on Larry’s stunted immaturity in the way Larry is shown at his doctor visit with his legs dangling from the medical table as if he were a little boy. And Larry’s highwater pants make him look like a quickly-growing child of parents who are holding out for one more spurt before shelling out for new clothes. And note the way Sy embraces Larry, then cradles his face as though he were a small child before he condescends to Larry by describing him as being "very adult" after being dumped by his wife.
Larry doesn’t really trust the advice (even before he receives it) from Rabbi Scott, the “junior Rabbi.” He’s looking for direction he can count on. Something more… parental. Not that Rabbi Nachtner has anything to say that will ease Larry’s suffering. Nachtner’s status as elder to Rabbi Scott and to Larry doesn’t actually mean he’s enabled with more insight into the will of Hashem. And if Larry were able to meet with the much older (and wiser?) Rabbi Marshak, he would likely receive the same advice that Marshak gives to Larry’s newly Bar Mitzvahed son: "Be a good boy."
By the end of the film, Sy is dead and Larry is getting back with Judith. Everything has gone back like it was. Things are looking up. And Larry will soon be tenured (which Larry views as an uptick in his career but within the context of the film implies a life trapped in sameness, rigidity). Those questions that bothered Larry, maybe they were like a toothache. Feel them for a while, then they go away. But if you have no questions (or if they were all answered), are you really living? Get stoned, listen to Jefferson Airplane, watch F-Troop, pay your debts, avoid getting beat up. With the Coens being the only verifiable "God" in the picture, perhaps we should look at the (probable) deaths of Larry and Danny as a decision from on high to pull the plug on characters who desire a life without questions, a life of passivity. Or perhaps the Coens are commenting on the very idea that people always seem to want them to provide answers about all those little mysteries in their movies. Does this mean that the Coens are "screwing with the audience" as I hear so often from people who emerge, baffled, from one of their films? Normally, I’d wonder just what the hell that question even means ("Is the answer in Kabbalah? In Torah? Or is there even a question?"). But in the case of A Serious Man, perhaps the answer really is "yes." One reading of the film might be that if you "don’t want to think" at the movies and would rather "turn off the brain" (or if you want to just “do nothing” like Larry and insist that the answers be spoon-fed to to you), perhaps you should go watch one of those disaster movies instead. Twister comes to mind.