A Serious Man centers around a Jewish family living in Midwest-suburbia in the 1960s. Larry Gopnik, the "serious man" previously alluded to, teaches at a university and is very close to achieving tenure. His family consists of a: wife who blames him for their issues and cannot wait for their get, or "ritual divorce"; hair-obsessed daughter who is saving up for a nose-job; pot-smoking son who is lackadaisically preparing for his Bar Mitzvah; and a seemingly helpless and cyst-infested brother. Along with his family he has goy (or non-Jewish) neighbors who are very much a picture of the 'ideal' American family and tend to annoy Larry frequently. So in short, he has one hell of a life to deal with! Oh, and the wife not only wants a divorce, she has already arranged for long-time friend Sy Ableman to move into their house and kick Larry out.
Larry is constantly searching for answers for his problems from local rabbis. They, like the rest of the people in his life, turn out to be of no help to him whatsoever. The second rabbi tells Larry this very intriguing story of a dentist who discovers the back of a goy patient's teeth engraved with the Hebrew phrase meaning "Help me, save me." Seeing this as a sign, we look for conclusion, meaning. However, the rabbi questions the meaning of the goy in the first place and shrugs the story off with unimportance. This faux-finality is what makes us, as human beings and spirits, think about options and paths that our lives can take. This makes us an individual in our own futures and leaves us in charge with who we become. These ideas are very much portrayed through the characters' actions and faults, leaving the audience to believe that there will always be instances to learn from our inevitable mistakes.
It is very important to understand the dialogue in this film before trying to examine the complex ideals this movie promotes. In the very beginning of the film a quote is displayed: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." This, along with the parable prologue and the entire film promotes a very open way of viewing life. In other words, keep everything simple and you'll find yourself living a very content life. Larry has never gotten involved in anything morally wrong, so when a disgruntled student bribes Larry to change his grade, he is awe-struck at such risque behavior. Since the family denies ever giving him the money, he tries to find ways to give the money back to other people (example: Larry gives the money to his brother, Arthur, before he sets sail across to Canada. This ends disastrously with Arthur getting shot by Larry's crazy hunting neighbors. Just another reason why he should not have even touched the money in the first place.) Another important recurring theme is the song "Somebody to Love" by Jefferson Airplane. This song comes up a handful of times during the course of the film, opening and closing the film as well.
When the truth is found to be lies
And all the joy within you dies
Don't you want somebody to love
Don't you need somebody to love
Wouldn't you love somebody to love
You better find somebody to love
When the garden's flowers, baby, are dead
Yes, and your mind, your mind is so full of red
Your eyes, I say your eyes may look like his
Yeah but in your head, baby
I'm afraid you don't know where it is
Tears are running, they're all running down your breast
And your friends, baby, they treat you like a guest
The opening lines of the song are also given as advice by Rabbi Marshak to Danny, Larry's son, after his Bar Mitzvah. Again, subtle humour courtesy of the Coen Bros. The last lines feel the most resonating because relationships are constantly being challenged. Especially to Larry who is treated like a guest in his own life. He has nobody to love and has no inner joy or hope to look forward to. The 'red' symbolizes all of the hatred he encounters and the unfortunate thoughts he experiences in the process of figuring out his life as a professor, husband, father, and friend.
My favorite scene is when Larry is teaching in a large lecture hall about the 'uncertainty principle.' A fast motion, close up shot of the chalkboard encapsulates Larry's work as he rushes along to finish before the bell. A cut to a much longer shot frames the humorously large board with hundreds of square feet of work. This made me think about more than just the comic relief this cut carried. By only seeing a small portion of a situation (the equation), you subject yourself to less than the entirety to what surrounds you. In another perspective, each part that exists (all people, things, creatures, creations, ideas) plays a seemingly small, yet significant role which relates to the grand picture of Life.
All things are connected to one another; there can be many interpretations to this. This movie hints at and very shortly suggests that people are joined together by a higher power and order. Our souls are intimately bonded with one another, and for this reason we are able to relate to others and share our personal lives with others.
Crosscutting at the end of the film shows both Larry's side and Danny's side of the story. A tornado warning is in effect at Danny's school so all of the students are to be moved to a nearby synagogue basement. While they wait in a parking lot, the tornado gets really close to where the students are standing. As Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" fades in, the tornado approaches and we see Danny's perplexed emotions right before the film cuts to black. It seems like I cannot ruin the ending for those of you who have not seen this movie yet because there is NO ending! However, lets retract to the prologue of the film. A couple is visited by a supposed dybbuk, defined as a "malicious or benevolent possessing spirit believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person" (Wikipedia). The wife knows the visitor to have died years ago and assumes that he is an evil soul coming back to possess their family. In the end, the wife stabs the visitor and he leaves the warm house to suffer in the blustery winter storm. Could the man have actually placed a curse over the family? In that case, this parable opening resembles a sort of "Adam and Eve" story where the rest of mankind has to deal with the sin of Eve eating the poisoned fruit. The Jewish population has been incurred with the sin and curse of the nomadic couple, all except for a kind few. This is where Larry comes in. He is morally right in all he does: he never cheats or blames anyone else, he has a stable career, and lives a faithful life. Until Clive enters his life. This student causes so much stress on Larry that, in means of trying to save Clive's humiliation within his family, he does away with his own moral righteousness and realizes the curse that has slowly infiltrated his mind. Hope as we know it has been erased from existence. This point is immediately validated by a phone call from Larry's doctor, asking him to come in to discuss an X-ray.
There is some point where everybody will have the opportunity to cave in and become something less than what we were made to do on Earth. Everything will pile up as if your lungs can hold no more air and you feel your feet and legs starting to crack underneath you. This point defines us as human beings, and this movie shows that only a rare few (if any) will actually abhor possession by this evil spirit. Life can be unfair and unless you are in control, you may lose everything.
Courtesy of Ina Garten, Food Network:
- 1 cup strawberries
- 1 cup watermelon
- 1 cup peaches, fresh
- 1 cup raspberry sorbet (or ice cream!)
- 1/4 cup orange juice