I have been thinking about the Coen Brothers’ movie A Serious Man for several weeks now. It is one of those movies that as soon as it ends you look blankly at your television screen and say to yourself, “huh.” A relatively unknown film, I found this movie to be fairly refreshing when compared to the rest of the Coen Brothers library.
The film starts out with a short “movie-inside-a-movie,” in which a Jewish husband and wife speak with a man whom we discover has long been believed to be dead. The wife believes this man to be a dybbuk (a jewish demon), while the husband appears to be incredulous. The short ends with the man (or dybbuk) being stabbed in the chest by the wife with an ice pick, bleeding, and leaving the house. The husband and wife have some back and forth conversation about this man and whether they are now cursed or not. The screen cuts to black, and Jefferson Airplane begins to play.
We are then introduced to the various members of the Gopnik family, (Larry, Danny, Judith, and Sarah). Danny is the one listening to Jefferson Airplane while in Hebrew School, and Larry is at the doctors office. Throughout the rest of the movie, we primarily focus on Larry Gopnik as we see his wife try to divorce him, a student tries to bribe him into changing a grade, another teacher gives him misleading news about his tenure,and his son stealing money from him, all while his crazy brother over stays his welcome and he prepares Danny for his Bar Mitzvah. To say that Larry Gopnik’s life is chaotic would be an understatement. As a remedy for everything life has thrown at him, Larry goes and sees a few Rabbi to help make sense of why God would allow everything to happen to him.
Even now I cannot decide where I rank this movie in comparison to all the other Coen Brothers movies. It can very easily be my number one. The Coen’s do an excellent job of keeping everything simple while continuing to heap more and more misery on top of Larry Gopnik. Just when you think things might get better for Larry, they don’t. The tension of man vs. God is kept almost in perfect balance. At least, up until the very end. The Coen’s also do a fantastic job of providing several people to contrast with Larry. From Larry’s perspective everything good that he believes he deserves because he is “a serious man,” seemingly happens to other people who do far more terrible things than Larry does. In spite of everything, we continue to see Larry make the choice to do the right thing. In typical Coen Brothers fashion we see ironic humor inserted into each of the situations presented, like Larry’s wife wanting to have a ceremonial Jewish divorce while still wanting a divorce.
With an ending as abrupt and ambiguous as this movies, fully forming my thoughts on its meaning has been difficult. After reading several interpretations from several different sources around the internet, I believe I have come up with an interpretation that I am completely happy with. Its at this point where I do have to warn against spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie, and want to form your own thoughts, I would advise you to insert your bookmark here and come back in about two hours after you’ve seen the movie. If you have seen the movie or you want a guide to watch the movie with, I would advise you to read on.
I believe the entire movie is meant to parallel the Biblical book of Job. The opening scene of the movie has no bearing on the plot or meaning of the rest of the movie. This information can be confirmed by the Coen Brothers themselves who have said that the only reason they inserted the short into the beginning of the movie was to prepare the audience for what kind of story was coming. The opening scene bathes us in Jewish culture. It prepares us for the kind of beliefs we are about to see, and gets the audience thinking. At the end of the scene we have no idea if the man really was a Dybbuk or just a man. We also have no way of knowing whether or not the husband and wife are cursed or not. There is no relation to Larry Gopnik as some people have claimed or believed.
Just like Job, everything bad that can happen to Larry appears to happen. He loses his wife, which leads to him losing everything he owns, his job is on the line, and his son appears to be stealing from him. The only thing he seems to still have is his health, at least until the end of the movie. At the end of the movie, we see a hopeless Larry struggling between doing the right and wrong thing. A student of his has offered to give him a large sum of money in exchange for a better (passing) grade. Larry then changes his ‘F’ grade to a ‘C-‘. Just as Larry lifts his pencil he receives a call from his doctor at the beginning of the movie telling him to come back to discuss the results of a chest x-ray. The implication is cancer. Larry makes the wrong decision, and loses the last thing he had, his health. While the audience is meant to think that because Larry changed the grade, he now has cancer, I don’t believe this follows the rules of the movie. In spite of all of his actions, nothing was every changed because of something Larry did. Everything that happened was out of Larry’s control and either directly caused by other people or by some act of God.
In the book of Job, after he loses everything, Job goes to visit several people, seeking advice on what to do. Each man Job meets tells him to curse God because of what happened as if that will fix all of his problems. Each time Job decides to continue to worship God. In the same way, Larry meets with a few Rabbi. Each of them telling him that there is no real way to understand God. In a moment of irony, Larry never gets to meet the third Rabbi, Danny does. Instead of trying to pull anything out of scripture, the third (and oldest, implying lots of wisdom) Rabbi quotes Jefferson Airplane, telling Danny to, “be a good boy.” None of the Rabbi’s really provide Larry with any insight to his life situations but, the third Rabbi does provide the answer that Larry has been seeking. It might be frustrating, but being good is the only real instruction Larry has to go off of, even if it doesn’t seem the most promising all the time.
The final piece of evidence for me that confirms that this movie is meant to be an interpretation of the book of Job is at the very end of the movie. Danny and his classmates are told to make their way to the shelter because a tornado has been spotted in the area. All of the students are gathered outside where their teacher struggles to unlock the door to the shelter when Danny turns and sees the tornado barring down on them. This scene mirrors a verse found in Job 38 when God finally speaks to Job after all of his trials. Job 38:1 reads, “Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind…” At the end of the day, no matter what Larry does, life is still vastly outside of his control. The only choice he has is to be good.
So, those are my thoughts. Let me know what you think in the comments, or go rent the movie if you haven’t seen it. It’s worth it.