(If you’ve already seen the movie, you may want to scroll down to the spoiler zone.)
A Serious Man is the Coen brothers’ (Fargo, No Country For Old Men, The Big Lebowski) latest film, and it’s a lot of fun. It is a Jewish parable of sorts, with two Jewish parables contained within. It’s the story of Larry Gopnik in a Minneapolis suburb in what is most likely 1970 (there are clues). He teaches Heisenberg’s uncertaintly principle as his day job, and lives it at home.
“But I didn’t do anything,” he insists when the Columbia Record Company continues to ship and bill him a record every month. And that’s the story of his life. His marriage, his kids, his work life teeter on the verge of disaster.
But he didn’t do anything.
This is the kind of story I can imagine my grandmother telling me– without all the naughty bits, of course. But my grandmother’s version would have a punchline, or a pat ending. It would leave me with a lot of questions, but would at least leave me with one great takeaway line, a moral, some truthiness that I could live by or live with.
But the Coens don’t leave you with anything but questions. Maybe this is the difference between a Jewish parable and a Hindu one? I don’t know, I’m a goy.
This movie did make me think about two things about movies in general:
- How soon after watching a movie should you be able to comfortably answer the question “What did you think”?
- How much of that answer, if answered right away, depends on the ending?
With this movie, it took me a day or two and I’m still not sure I can honestly tell you what I think about the movie. I don’t know if it’s a 4-star or a 5-star movie. And the ending made it unsatisfying at the time– I walked out expecting at least one more scene– but that ending is what might push it from 4-star material to 5-star. It is a fantastic gamble.
Todd McCarthy in Variety said, “This is the kind of picture you get to make after you’ve won an Oscar.” I’m not sure that’s true. The Coens have been making movies like this before the academy paid them notice, but he may have a point about the cast. Before the Oscar, they would have needed a few big names in there– if only indie big names, like Coen favorites John Turturro or John Goodman or Steve Buscemi.
If you haven’t seen the movie, turn back now, for here there be dragons.
About that ending. Was the tornado and the doctor’s phone call a direct result of his changing the grade to a C-? I’m not sure. It’s not like his life was in great shape before that. The $3000 retainer from the lawyer came before he changed the grade, but maybe that was the test? He chose the wrong path, passed the Korean kid, but failed his own test. The doctor’s call and the tornado following as a result. I’m not satisfied with this, it explains too much.
Maybe there are clues in the two stories within the story: the dybbuk story and the dentist story?
Let’s take the dybbuk first: I believe it serves a primary purpose of setting the stage. Letting the audience know that they are in for a parable/myth, and that there may be forces at play that go well beyond the understanding of the characters on stage. But is there a more direct connection? Does the dybbuk’s curse still haunt Gopnik? Again, I’m not sure.
Then, the dentist. I think the ending of the dentist story says a lot more than the actual story– the dentist moves on, puts no more stock in it and tries to go about his life doing good. The answer is unknowable– is the cat dead or alive– the box is closed, so you do your best.
Also, who cares about the goy? The man whose teeth cried “Help me” was not the subject of the story. Maybe he was crying out for help, but his only role was to teach the dentist about life. Maybe Gopnik is the goy, and nobody cares about the goy, so the important question at the end of the story is not “what happened to Gopnik?” but what happened to those who discovered Gopnik’s cries.
Well, we moved on with our lives like the dentist.
A few key paragraphs from other people’s analysis:
Todd McCarthy again:
More than anything, “A Serious Man” would seem to represent a moderately jaundiced memoir of a specific time and place, that being the Minnesota of the Coens’ youth. Many such quasi-autobiographical works in literature and film take the form of an escape story by a gifted soul just too sensitive or different to cope any longer with a restrictive environment. To the contrary, the Coens have chosen to identify not with the son but with the father, a man who, as narrative circumstances play out, could have decided to bail out at a certain point. But such a thing never occurs to him for an instant.
Jim Emerson, on the always excellent scanners blog:
Happiness, misery — maybe Rabbi Nachtner’s tale of the goy’s teeth was right. No matter what it is, it will pass. (…) to pull in a Robert Towne/Polanski reference (this movie and “Barton Fink” are the Coens’ most Polanski-like) from “Chinatown”: “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me you don’t.” Or maybe you do. But until you open the box, Schrödinger’s cat exists in two states simultaneously as a projection, or an assumption about the future. That’s a way of viewing, and understanding how we experience living in, the world…
There is a story told in “A Serious Man” that may seem out of place. I believe it acts as a parable reflecting the film, Gopnik’s life, and indeed the Book of Job. It’s the one about the Jewish dentist who discovers the words “help me” naturally occurring in Hebrew on the back of a gentile’s lower front teeth. Remember that many parables contain their message in their last lines.
Which brings me to another (last) point– this movie probably has more in it for Jewish people than for goys like me. But there’s a lot here for the goys.