Movie Review of A Serious Man

But We Haven’t Done Anything: The Modern Dilemma in A Serious Man
by clarissa olivarez
I recently sat down to watch A Serious Man with my husband and I was surprised at how successfully it addresses the very familiar topic of our modern existential dilemma. This is not new ground to cover in film – or, for that matter, in literature. Before the onset of realism and naturalism in the late 19th century (movements headed by writers like Émile Zola, Stephen Crane and Frank Norris) Victorian writers like Charlotte Bronte believed that good people were rewarded for their good deeds and those who were “evil” were eventually punished in this world. In early cinema and television you need only to look at early Westerns and crime dramas to see that this very Victorian ideal has not entirely faded from our consciousness – the “good guys” triumphed, while the “bad guys” were killed or locked up. However modernism showed us that it is not one’s actions that determine one’s lot in life, but rather our fortune or misfortune is entirely arbitrary – a crapshoot. Why is it then, that in the early twenty-first century, we are still surprised when bad things happen to us? What would now seem like a washed-out topic is revived in this film as the Coen Brothers attempt to answer the age-old question: “Why does ‘God’ allow bad things to happen to good [or serious, or rational, or otherwise ‘normal’] people?”
In the beginning of the movie, the audience comes upon a 19th century scene in which a Jewish couple is visited by the supposed ghost of Traitle (Reb) Groshkover. Although we are given no context or explanation of this scene it is important to note that it is during this visit that the wife, Dora, mentions that “God has cursed” them. The mention of this curse is meant to point out to the viewer that some unfortunate events happen to us for no other reason than mere accident – they have nothing to do with our character. We recall the epigraph before the start of the movie which quotes Rashi: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you,” which implies that we have little or no control over the situations we encounter in life. Velvel, the man who was helped by Groshkover, is said to be a “rational man” who doesn’t believe in ghosts or possessions (just as later, Sy Ableman will be described as a “serious man”). But Velvel’s wife soon stabs Reb Groshkover and sends him out where we can infer that his body will soon be discovered – Velvel is doomed. Along the same lines, once he is stabbed, Reb Groshkover asks, “One does a mitzfah and this is the thanks he gets?” So if rational and serious men have tragedies befall them (along with Good Samaritans like Reb) then what kind of person must we be in order to have “good” things happen to us?
Fast forward about a century later when we are thrown into a world that looks like it came straight out of The Wonder Years. We are introduced to the character of Lawrence Gopnik, a physics professor who is up for tenure in his department. It becomes clear that Larry’s mathematical mind has entirely formed his perspective of the world as a very rigid structure with clear actions and reactions. To him, it is our actions that become the precise factors that will determine the outcome of our situations. As Larry says to his failing Korean student, Clive, “Everything has consequences.” But what if we cannot identify the transgression from which our punishment stems?
It soon becomes clear that not only is Larry’s life framed around an old-world and rather obsolete ideal, but that his search for answers is misguided. In a Biblical sense, everything has consequences, yes, but how often do we see God strike someone down for his or her behavior nowadays? The Coen Brothers’ decision to arrange each of the three sections of the film into parts associated with rabbis – The First Rabbi, The Second Rabbi and Marshak – reflects Larry’s need for some sort of orderly direction and progression.
We begin with the Rabbi Scott, a soft-spoken, unimposing and inexperienced junior rabbi who tells Larry that he no longer knows how to see Hashem, or God, in the world. Larry leaves confused and dissatisfied and due to the urgings of those around him seeks the second rabbi – Senior Rabbi Nachtner. Throughout his first and second search for answers Larry’s formulaic mind is examined.
When Larry visits the second rabbi, Rabbi Nachtner, his existential crisis (which stems from his emerging uncertainty in the world) is unveiled. Unlike the dentist, Sussman, who is content to go “back to his life” after seeing the words “Help me” engraved into a patient’s incisors, Larry wants answers. He asks, “Why does [Hashem] make us feel the questions if he’s not going to give us any answers?” So who does have access to these answers and will our scientific inquiry reward us with some solution to our questions?
It seems, at least in the beginning, that Uncle Arthur is the only one who has figured out all the answers to life in his Mentaculus (a “probability map of the universe,” as Danny states). He lives with Larry’s family for free and claims his “gambling” doesn’t hurt anyone. It is not until Arthur is arrested for solicitation and sodomy that he claims he “didn’t do anything.” However before Arthur’s legal troubles, his contentment comes to a halt in the Jolly Roger when he runs out of his motel room crying in his underwear. When we find Arthur by the pool, he screams to Larry that “It’s all shit.” This decline into nihilism is abrupt, as Arthur’s quiet demeanor is suddenly transformed into one who has no happiness or control. In one insightful moment, Larry tells Arthur, “Sometimes you have to help yourself.” The implication is that Hashem is either absent or not interested in helping us. We are alone and some of us are just plain cursed.
Ok, so we can understand how Arthur’s actions led to his arrest, but what about Larry? Why do unfortunate events continue to fall upon someone like Larry Gopnik? After all, even he realizes that he is “not an evil man.” Yet, almost immediately after making this very claim at his office desk, he tells his colleague, “I haven’t done anything.” We expect, from his previous rationality, that he means that he has done nothing wrong. But it becomes clear that Larry is learning about the universe he teaches through equations when he states, “I haven’t published.” Larry is not wondering why bad things are happening to someone who is not evil and has done nothing wrong; rather, he is wondering how he could get tenure when he has done nothing productive within his own field. His world view is now shifting to one of modernity. Larry’s life is not only falling apart, but he is now likely to fade into the background just as easily as his reflection in the front door window when he comes face-to-face with Sy earlier in the film. What was once clear about Larry’s life is now uncertain and problematic.
In a dream Larry has about teaching Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle Sy, his wife’s new lover, appears in his audience and says he alone knows what’s going on (presumably because he is “a serious man”) and that math is only the “art of the possible.” Sy then comes down to the floor level of the classroom and repeatedly bangs Larry’s head against the massive chalkboard saying, “I fucked your wife. See Marshak.” Everything inside Larry is pushing him to seek out more answers from those who are assumed to contain them. Sy doesn’t have all the answers – he’s dead as a result of an unfortunate auto accident; but, Larry’s unconscious mind suggests to him that Sy must know something he doesn’t.
In the third section of the movie, entitled “Marshak” the audience finally comes face-to-face with the moment we have been waiting for – after his bar mitzfah Danny is sent to see Rabbi Marshak. Based on the failure of the previous two rabbis, and the hype built around the elusive Marshak, we expect an answer from this “wise” rabbi. Yet it is not Larry who visits Marshak, but his son. Larry is turned down when he explains his situation to the secretary and the necessity of him seeing Marshak immediately. She tells him that the rabbi is “busy. He’s thinking.” Upon seeing him, my husband turned to me and stated, “He looks like a rabbi.” I’m assuming he meant that he had the appearance of someone whose age has brought wisdom, perspective and perhaps even enlightenment. He, alone, may very well be the only “serious and rational man” in this movie; however, what we get is a very un-serious and irrational moment. We begin to wonder if this man who has gained so much respect is even a “good” man. After quoting the beginning lines of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” he asks Danny, “Then what?” What do we do when everything falls apart? Not even Marshak seems to know. The only advice he can give to young Danny is to “Be a good boy.” But, if we are to reflect on the tenets of modernism again, will this even matter? Even if Danny is a “good” boy, it seems we have learned to finally accept that this is not a deciding factor in predicting happiness – but has Larry learned this?
Following the clue that Larry has been granted tenure, we see the destruction of Larry’s life reach fatal proportions. Almost immediately after Larry changes his failing student Clive’s grade from an “F” to a “C-“ he gets a call from Dr. Shapiro’s office to review his recent x-ray results “now.” After receiving this ominous news, the last shot of the movie shows Larry’s son, Danny, looking head-on into the path of an oncoming tornado. All will be thrown into disorder once again and the cycle of chaos will be repeated. Yet the fact remains, Larry never “did” anything wrong. The equation does not make sense. Yet just like the couple in the beginning, his family is now cursed. And as for the answers – well, it seems those continue to elude us as well.
So what are we left with? Hopefully, we have “somebody to love” nearby since our world is revealed to be a hostile and indiscriminate place. We must all realize that “bad things” could happen to any one of us. Science and faith offer us nothing, so we must now invent a new way to search for the answers to the universe.
Clarissa Olivarez is a writer and photographer. She teaches literature at American University and Northern Virginia Community College. She is currently living in Washington, D.C. Her photography has appeared in Inscape and Juked.

0 thoughts on “Movie Review of A Serious Man

  1. Traitle (Reb) Groshkover seemed the hapless victim who is either dead in the box or alive at their table. The wife removed the uncertainty by acting. Bad things happen. Be good. No one survives the uncertainty experiment. That much is certain.

  2. Movies often are so involved with their own realities that the shock value is rarely very impressive to me anymore when something like a twist ending comes around. Many movies never affect me any deeper than to conjure up a bit of respect in me for the filmmaker’s ability to deceive me- by leaving me clues to the hidden ending, but still being able to hide it from me as the film progresses. This was such a different movie for me because its twist was that, at its core, the story was just so ruthlessly concerning itself with the reality we live in and not one the filmmaker had concocted. This was blatantly in my face the entire time as negative things kept happening to Larry he didn’t seem to deserve, but my fault was in expecting to be given some answer to this riddle.
    I had a total “aha!” moment when I saw how true to our own existence the movie was acting the entire time without my noticing, by not supplying me with an answer. I love the way chaos operates under the guise of order, and that’s what I felt this movie was about (what this life might be about), revealing itself as a tornado running toward a school full of kids. Thanks for taking the time to write this terrific review.

  3. Matt — “chaos operates under the guise of order” — not only would that be a great line in a poem, but it really captures the essence of most of the movies written and directed by the Coen Brothers… especially one of smy favorites, “Burn After Reading.”
    Clarissa — I enjoyed this quite a bit. Very insightful and well written.

  4. Do so. Its a great movie. I can appreciate the effort that went into this review/analysis, but I’m afraid my attention span lagged a bit. Not because the thoughts weren’t compelling, but because I read so much stuff like this on a regular basis. My own thoughts on the movie itself were pretty simple – great structure that it was built around, almost poetic in form, and it had a real impact on me. As far as analysis goes, it really just seemed like a very creative rehash of Job, but made doubly interesting because the Coen’s were paying tribute of a sorts to their upbringing in St. Louis Park MN. I spent about five years of my life living a few miles away from where this was shot. I think they captured the era, and the place, beautifully.

  5. Thanks for all the helpful and insightful feedback. It’s truly a credit to the film that we can have this much to say about it and still be hungry for more conversation.

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