The Coen Project Part 14: A Serious Man

I had never seen A Serious Man, the Coens’ 2009 follow up to No Country For Old Men and Burn After Reading prior to watching it for this entry. I expected something lighter than both preceding films, but what I got was probably the closest thing to a horror film that the Coens have yet made, a semi-surrealist American nightmare set in a stand-in for their own Minnesota hometown.

A Serious Man takes the grinning fatalism present in their previous films and puts it in a explicitly religious context. While many Coen films engage with religion on some level, it’s typically just a part of the overall texture of the world or a red herring ancillary to the  primary themes. In A Serious Man, however, Judaism is front and center: the film is about man’s relationship with God, and this God’s causal link or lack thereof to what happens in a person’s life.

The Minnesota of A Serious Man is drawn more from the filmmakers’ real life than the Minnesota of Fargo, but it feels more unreal. With its near-identical houses situated on an endless expanse of flat Midwestern plains, it reminds me of the ghost towns built for nuclear testing. Suburbs like this were probably normal-looking to people who actually lived in them, but in modern cinematic language, they represent of the darker aspects of the post-war American dream. It’s the perfect setting for the waking nightmare that is A Serious Man.

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Similar to O Brother Where Art Thou’s use of mythic structure in the form of The Odyssey, A Serious Man borrows a biblical myth, Job, as a guiding narrative template. Minus the happy ending where Job gets all his stuff back. Like in No Country and Burn After, we’re not gonna get a feel-good conclusion.

The germ of A Serious Man was a planned short film based on a real-life rabbi from Joel and Ethan’s childhood, who would hold a private audience with each bar mitzvah kid: “…he was a sphinx-like, Wizard of Oz type character, and we thought that would make an interesting short movie”. Eventually, the Coens expanded the project into a feature script set in a suburban Minnesota Jewish community like the one they grew up in.

The film begins with an apparent non-sequitur of a prologue — an Eastern European Jewish ghost story, with dialogue entirely in Yiddish. A man invites an old friend inside his home to escape the cold and have a hot meal. The catch is that his wife knows this friend to be already dead. She’s convinced that their guest is an evil spirit — a Dybbuk, dead but not dead. She unceremoniously stabs him in the chest with an ice pick, he barely flinches before bolting.

While you could infer that this opening depicts the ancestral source of our mid-century protagonist’s bad luck, the Coens have stated that the purpose of the scene is to frame the story as explicitly Jewish from the outset. I think there may be a little more to it, which I’ll get into later.

Primed by this weirdness, we are plunged into the world of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor whose life is falling apart. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) has announced that she wants a get, or Jewish ritual divorce, so that she can marry the insufferable widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Sy and Judith kick Larry out of the house and into the Jolly Roger motel, which Sy remarks is “eminently liveable”. The resulting legal fees are more than he can feasibly afford on his pre-tenure Professor’s salary.

Meanwhile the kids aren’t doing much better — his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is hounded by a bully from Hebrew school to whom he owes twenty dollars for marijuana. On top of everything, Larry has to take care of his homeless brother Arthur (Richard Kind), an odd man who spends most of his time in the bathroom draining a sebaceous cyst.

Larry is baffled by his plight, giving us our signature Coen Brothers repeated phrase: “What is going on?” As a devout Conservative Jew, Larry assumes that God is somehow involved with what is happening, and upon the advice of everyone in his life, seeks the counsel of his community’s rabbis.

The film is divided into sections by title cards, one for each of two rabbis that Larry goes to for “answers”.

Rabbi number one is the young Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg), who is trying really hard to be what he thinks a rabbi is supposed to be. He concludes that Larry is “losing track of Hashem” and that his existential confusion is simply a matter of perspective — he just needs see the things that are happening to him as God’s will.

This unhelpful piece of advice is familiar to most people of faith. The same people who tend to give this directive would not describe the objectively bad things that have happened as God’s will or even potentially God’s will prior to their occurrence. Rabbi Scott suggests a situation where you should be able to figure out what God is doing, at least in retrospect. If this seems logically futile, well, try harder.

Larry approaches Rabbi number two after the untimely demise of Sy Ableman, his wife’s intended replacement husband. This rabbi, Nachner (George Wyner), takes a more stochastic approach to God’s intentions. He tells Larry a story of a Jewish orthodontist who finds the Hebrew letters spelling out “help me” engraved on the inside of a gentile patient’s teeth. Convinced that it’s a sign from God, the orthodontist attempts to figure out what it means, ultimately going to Nachner for help as Larry did. So was it a sign, or not?

“The teeth, we don’t know. A sign from Hashem? Don’t know. Helping others? Couldn’t hurt”.

Larry is infuriated by Nachner’s conclusion, which to use a colloquial text expression, amounts to: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.”

Not knowing how or even if God is operating within our lives is a central struggle for any religious person. In Christianity, this topic has been wrestled with by everyone from Saint Augustine to Veggietales. What Larry still doesn’t understand is that we always have to decide how to act, whether we think we have the answers or not.

While only the first two rabbis get title cards, a third rabbinical audience occurs when the newly Bar Mitzvahed and very stoned Danny approaches the ancient Rabbi Marshak. To Danny’s delight, the old man intones the lyrics of Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love, and then returns his previously confiscated radio. His advice is concise and actionable: “Be a good boy”.

I want to talk about the physics in A Serious Man, A. because I’m a nerd and I can’t not, and B. because I think the concepts mentioned on screen point to a deeper understanding of what the film says about God. The first physics scene involves a very opaque explanation of Schrodinger’s paradox, which is a thought experiment devised by Erwin Schrodinger to illustrate the logical problems with quantum mechanics back when they were being debated in the 1920’s. If the quantum state of a particle could determine whether a cat lives or dies, and the particle is in a quantum superimposition of those two states, then the cat is both alive and dead. I read this reference as a callback to the Dybbuk of the prologue, a man who may or may not be actually dead.

This leads into a scene where Larry reveals his dependence on the objectivity of mathematics to his understanding of the world as he debates the fairness of a midterm result with a student.

Clive: Yes, but this is not just. I was unaware to be examined on the mathematics.

Larry: Well, you can’t do physics without mathematics, really, can you?

Clive: If I receive failing grade I lose my scholarship, and feel shame. I understand the physics. I understand the dead cat.

Larry: You understand the dead cat? But… you… 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.

Larry understands the math, but he hasn’t yet accepted the causal ambiguity at the heart of modern physics.

The second physics-centric scene is one of a handful of dream sequences that occur as Larry’s grasp on the causality of his life begins to crumble. Again in a classroom, Larry derives Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states that if the momentum of a particle is known, we can’t know it’s position, and vice versa. Or in Larry’s exasperated wording: “It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on.” As he speaks, the camera reveals a cartoonishly gigantic chalkboard full of calculations behind him. Like his trips to the rabbis, science only leads Larry to the conclusion that the truth is unknowable. Like the cat and the Dybbuk, God’s presence in his life is in a state of quantum uncertainty, both real and unreal. 

But Larry isn’t the only scientist in his family. He stumbles upon his brother Arthur’s notebook, entitled “The Mentaculus”, which contains pages of fantastical numerologic diagrams, symbols, and illustrations. Arthur believes that the Mentaculus is a “probability map of the universe”. While Arthurs’ methods of understanding the world are inscrutable to Larry, they seem to have some functional value — Arthur is banned from an illegal card game because of his unexplainable winning streaks. Still, the cosmic understanding that Arthur has discovered or stumbled upon doesn’t succeed in making him happy — he’s unable to relate to other people, and envies Larry’s personal connections, however broken and dysfunctional they’ve become.

Since it’s hard to form a real conclusion about a film that’s about not being able to form a conclusion, I’ll wrap up with my favorite scene.

 Larry’s son requests that his father adjust the TV antennae on top of the house so that he can watch F-Troop. Larry climbs up on the roof, giving us a bird’s eye view of the suburban environs that stretch out seemingly forever — interminable tops of more or less identical houses, a man watering his lawn, kids riding by on bikes. As Larry tweaks the metal appendages of the antennae, the signals phase in and out — indecipherable messages from far away. The music in this scene gives it a twilight-zone-esque sense of surreality. I couldn’t find the full clip of the scene, but here’s the track from the score:

Stray Observations:

  • This is a great simple explanation of the uncertainty principle, one of the foundational concepts of quantum physics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQKELOE9eY4
  • For the record, the Veggietales episode that deals with the whole bad things happening to good people thing is is entitled The Ballad of Little Joe, and recounts the story of Joseph and the Egyptians in produce-populated Western form. I will go to bat for Veggietales any day. I can’t vouch for their theological nuance, but they were funny and clever as hell — my brothers and I quoted them endlessly growing up. The animation itself a pretty awesome example of working with what you have — CG animation systems at the time couldn’t support naturalistic limbs or simulations, so anthropomorphic vegetables was a way to create animation that looks pretty decent to this day.
  • Another great Coen Brothers interview moment: 

    A fan asks if this film, along with No Country and Burn After, are about the emptiness of American society. Ethan cracks up as Joel struggles to give even a semi-serious answer to this question.

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