The Search for Answers in A Serious Man
By Jason Haggstrom, June 21, 2010
The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man is a film about suffering, religious tenets, miscommunication, and the way we perceive the universe and our existence within it. But the most common reaction to the A Serious Man is one of confusion. The film is complicated by multiple narratives, the idiomatic language of Jewish culture, and a highly ambiguous finale that leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. It’s a rare film that doesn’t wrap up all of its plot points and answer all of its questions by the end of the third act. For some viewers, coming away with no answers or proper resolution is the film’s undoing. But a close inspection of the film reveals it to be a narrative about the unknown. It’s a narrative designed to convey the confusion about our existence in the universe and how we, as a species with the cognitive ability to ask questions, must find contentment when we aren’t given answers.
- General plot
Larry Gopnik is a physics professor, a man who can prove out such abstract concepts as uncertainty and the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat being simultaneously alive and dead through elaborate mathematical equations. Larry, like Velvel in the parable that opens the film, is a rational man. But what Larry can’t rationalize are the reasons behind all the problems that are currently plaguing his life. As a teacher of physics, Larry understands that all actions have consequences, which is why Larry has such a hard time understanding why bad things keep happening to him when he "hasn’t done anything." From Larry’s perspective, none of it adds up. First, his wife, Judith, reveals that she wants a divorce, and then Larry discovers that his neighbor is attempting to invade part of his property with a new building. These stresses lead to financial stress as Larry must move into a motel and then consult a law firm to deal with both his wife and neighbor. Larry has also been supporting his brother, Arthur, who spends every waking moment either draining the cyst on his neck or writing "The Mentaculus," a mathematical journal that is either a "probability map of the universe" or a record of Arthur’s madness. At work, Larry finds an envelope full of money on his desk—money that he could certainly use right now—leading him to the conclusion that his Korean student, Clive, is trying to bribe him for a passing grade. The situation with Clive only adds to the stress he’s already receiving from Arlen, the head of the tenure committee who continually needles Larry with inconclusive updates on Larry’s impending tenure review. Why does it seem like the entire world is bearing down on him when he hasn’t "done anything" to deserve it?
Larry continually falls back on the notion that he hasn’t "done anything," suggesting that he shouldn’t suffer from problems that he didn’t directly cause. The problem with Larry’s outlook—his refusal to take control of his existence—is thrown back at him, hilariously, when a Columbia Records Club representative repeatedly tells him that by doing nothing, Larry is making a choice. Larry’s inaction is further shown as part of the problem when he allows the ghost of Sy Ableman that haunts his nightmares to repeatedly smash his face into a wall while Larry does nothing to stop it. Even worse, having not "done anything" also comes back to haunt Larry’s attempt at getting tenure; Larry hasn’t published, a mistake that will certainly harm his chances of getting tenure. Larry will keep receiving those Columbia records and Sy will keep on bashing his head into the wall unless Larry does something about it. But, when Larry finally does attempt to take back control of his life and makes the choice to keep the envelope full of money, it appears that Larry is punished once more, this time severely.
The film’s plot centers around not only Larry’s suffering but, more importantly, his search for answers. That search eventually leads to Larry’s meeting with the rabbis of his synagogue and to his assumption that the suffering he is enduring is all part of God’s will. As Larry puts it, "The boss isn’t always right, but he’s always the boss." But the Coens find the absurdity in our inability to understand the nature of our existence and pepper the film with clues about how the will of God isn’t so abundantly clear. When Larry meets with Rabbi Scott he is told that his problems stem from the fact that he’s simply lost the ability to see Hashem (the Jewish word for "the name" of God) in the world. The scene is played for laughs as Rabbi Scott instructs Larry to look out the window and see Hashem in the parking lot, a ridiculous notion for a rational man such as Larry. Later in the film, before he goes to visit the second rabbi, Rabbi Nachtner, Larry is involved in a car accident at precisely the same moment as the car accident that kills Sy. The Coens edit together the scenes of Larry and Sy driving toward their impending crashes in a way that confuses the relationship between the two, making it seem as though the two scenes are connected before Larry’s crash abruptly signals the false logic behind such a connection. The absurdity of Larry’s question to Rabbi Nachtner—"Is Hashem trying to tell me that Sy Ableman is me, or that we are all one, or something"—further emphasizes the notion that if you go looking for a message from God you’re going to find one whether it actually exists or not.
The Coens also go beyond plot to convey the theme of our gross inability to understand God’s will by illustrating that we can’t even understand each other. Larry, his lawyer, and even the rabbi all have trouble understanding what a "get" is (answer: a ritual divorce). And Larry has no idea what his wife means when she says she wants to avoid becoming an "aguna." At Danny’s school, a generation gap and language barrier emerges as the teachers speak only Hebrew while the kids rely on modern slang, especially the word "fuck." The language barrier between cultures is also emphasized when Larry is completely confounded by what he hears as "Meer sir my sir" when Clive, his Korean student, has actually stated "Mere surmise, sir." The theme of poor or fallible communication is also extended into the way characters misquote each other, such as when a stoned Larry decides that maybe Rabbi Scott was correct in telling him that his problems were all a matter of "perception" even though Rabbi Scott had actually told him it was a matter of "perspective." A more egregious example occurs when Sy remarks that Judith found Larry to be "very adult" in discussing divorce when, in actuality, she had called him a "child." Even Marshak, the rabbi who is presented as a man who is so wise as to be infallible, displays a slip of the tongue when he replaces the word "joy" with "hope" when quoting lyrics from "Somebody to Love" back to Danny. Examples of broken communication and misunderstandings such as these permeate nearly every scene in A Serious Man. But these alterations in words from person-to-person and scene-to-scene aren’t mistakes in the screenplay or by the actors; the Coens have built a career around having tight control over their writing and the final output of their films. Thematically, the film is asking its audience that if we can’t even understand each other, what chance do we have of understanding the will of God?
The Coens also use the theme of dichotomous thinking to show how we never really know the true nature of things. This theme is most prominently featured in the film’s opening parable with the dual (and dueling) perspectives of Velvel and Dora—those of the rational and the "serious" (the film’s synonym for "pious")—and in the lyrical contradiction of the verse "When the truth is found to be lies" of Jefferson Airplane’s "Somebody to Love" that is featured multiple times in the film. It is also found in Larry’s realization that "Everything that I thought was one way turns out to be another," his revelation that the erotic film he once saw "wasn’t even erotic, though it was in a way," and in the way that Rabbi Marshak refers to Danny as a boy immediately after the bar mitzvah that made him a man. This theme of dichotomous thinking plays heavily into the film’s climax, specifically in the way the ending will be perceived by the individual perspectives of those who see it.
When Larry makes the choice at the end of the film to alter Clive’s grade to passing and to keep the envelope full of money as a means to alleviate his financial problems he is immediately informed about a problem that far exceeds anything he’s dealt with up to this point. His doctor wants to meet with him about some x-ray results. Immediately. Across town, a tornado touches down near the parking lot of Danny’s school (the very same parking lot where Rabbi Scott told Larry to look for the presence of God). For his part, Danny had just made the choice to ignore Rabbi Marshak’s advice to "be a good boy" and go back to shutting out his Hebrew teacher in favor of listening to his portable radio (which Marshak had recently returned to him). When the credits roll, we may speculate that both Larry and Danny are about to come face-to-face with death but we don’t actually know the outcome. But as with Rabbi Nachtner’s story of the goy’s teeth, what happens to the characters after the story isn’t what’s relevant. More importantly is the question of whether the tornado and the x-ray results were an act of God.
The film exists as a fantastic representation of the observer effect, the idea that the object being observed is altered by the observer. Depending on who the observer is (rational or "serious"), the film is either about how God has directed the events or how the events are mere coincidence. Both perspectives exist simultaneously, just as they do with the dual perspectives of Velvel and Dora from the opening parable and in the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat where the cat is simultaneously alive and dead depending on who is looking in the box. When Larry declares that he just wants an answer to whether or not God was sending a message through the goy’s teeth (and, more importantly, if God is causing his own suffering), Rabbi Nachtner tells him that "We can’t know everything" and that "Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer." Instead of providing an answer where there clearly isn’t one to be found, A Serious Man exists as a parable about the unknown and how we all must accept the not-knowing through whatever method makes the most sense to us. Perhaps the film’s clearest pronouncement of this statement comes from Clive’s father who pleads with Larry to "Accept the mystery."
A Serious Man examines human suffering in order to ask us to question the nature of our lives, the consequences of our actions (or inaction), and the relation between our existence and the presence (or absence) of God. With it’s prevailing themes of human suffering, of communication breakdowns, and of seeing connections between things that aren’t necessarily connected, 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.