‘A Serious Man’ – Film Review and Analysis

“Above all else, it is a story of a ‘serious’ man who wants to be taken seriously and seems unable to be granted that not only from his teenage children but also from his estranged wife and it seems from religious leaders in his suburban Jewish community.”

Man can be tested again and again but how exactly he deals with life’s challenges and his overall resolve and mettle will be seen as the measure of his true character. If I had to sum up the excellent movie, ‘A Serious Man’, it is a dark comedy but also a human drama regarding fate, fortune, and whether the role of a higher being can ultimately affect our destiny. Above all else, it is a story of a ‘serious’ man who wants to be taken seriously and seems unable to be granted that not only from his teenage children but also from his estranged wife and it seems from religious leaders in his suburban Jewish community.

‘A Serious Man’ (2009) is an excellent modern-day film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, who I would imagine have had a similar childhood to the lead character of Larry Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), which is the inspiration for this adapted screenplay, which is brilliantly written and relatable even if you’re not of the Jewish faith. The Coen Brothers both were raised and grew up as Jews in 1960s – 1970s Minnesota near the Twin Cities. It is likely they had to deal with being religious minorities in a mostly goyim (non-Jewish state) as well as with the growing counterculture and changing attitudes towards parental authority, sex, style, personal responsibility, and other societal upheavals including regarding race, gender, and politics.

While the Coen Brothers have had successful movies before and have won Academy Awards for movies such as ‘No Country for Old Men’, this film, ‘A Serious Man’ is quite unique given that it combines both comedic and dramatic elements, usually in the same scene. Overall, it triumphs as a film in doing that and is also laugh-out-loud funny and additionally heart-wrenchingly sad and melancholic. This film was universally praised and as I re-watched the film again after many years, it stands as one of the best films of the 2000s. Not only is the screenplay and writing engaging and insightful but also the acting is top notch thanks to the hard work of Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, among others in the film.

When you consider the main themes of ‘A Serious Man’, you think of several of them that deal with human nature such as upholding your morality under stress, taking care of those closest to you, dealing with adversity and unforeseen hurdles, and how to deal with questions of faith when you feel that you have been abandoned. As I mentioned earlier on, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to be taken seriously given the way he has lived his life and he has strived to do so with his academic and professional accomplishments. Sadly though, he is not only not able to get as much success with his professional pursuits, but he also struggles to hold his personal life together.

Despite how ‘serious’ of a man Larry thinks he is, those in his life can’t help but not take him seriously or choose not to. Instead of reassessing his actions and trying to make some behavioral changes or work on any personal defects he may has in addressing his challenges, Larry instead challenges his faith in God and wonders if the Rabbis of his synagogue will have the answers to the questions God has challenged Larry with.

As the film starts out, Larry appears to be relatively successful as a Physics professor waiting to be tenured. He teaches his classes, does research (albeit has not published anything), and enjoys the work he does. Larry is married with two teenage children and a modest house in the suburbs. Him and his family want for nothing, and it looks like he has everything you could want out of life on the surface.

As appearances can be deceiving, the film breaks down how one man’s life can be turned upside down and inferring what events beyond Larry’s control could have tipped his fortune to be negative, as in a curse, years or centuries ago. It is a series of events that tend to turn Larry’s life upside down even when he has not done anything wrong. A Korean student in his Physics class tries to bribe Larry to get a better grade and leaves before Larry can return the money and punish him for the illegal act.

Larry also comes home to his wife, Judith, who asks him for a divorce and for a ‘gett’ or permission to do so she can remarry within the faith to Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed) who everyone takes seriously as a ‘Serious Man’ except for Larry. Larry is envious of Sy to some degree and feels like he has everything given to him whereas Larry has had to work hard for his success. Suddenly, ‘the domino effect’ of one negative event after another happens including Larry losing his home, access to his bank accounts, his marriage, and even his relationship to his teenage children become estranged.

This string of unfortunate events has Larry looking to cast judgment on God and questioning his faith in Judaism. Larry goes to three different rabbis whose advice and counsel does not help him any further. He cannot relate to what they tell them especially as the eldest, he considers to be too unavailable or unwilling and the youngest rabbi being too inexperienced or immature, who end up wasting his time. The 2nd and wisest rabbi give him the advice through an allegory, that while fictional, has a good message to it ends up helping Larry the most that God can only provide the questions, but you must find your own answers. The best way the 2nd rabbi implies to Larry is that he must “help himself by helping others.”

Essentially, Larry Gopnik must look beyond his own pain and selfish wants and look to control what he can and do what he can to get his life back on track. Larry can also do ‘mitzvahs’ especially regarding his own family. Larry’s younger brother, Arthur, is homeless and not mentally sound so Larry tries to get him on his feet but struggles to find the money or the resources to help his brother with his many troubles. He still attempts to maintain better relations with his kids, his soon to be ex-wife, and with his work colleagues. Without spoiling the rest of the movie, Larry understands that he must look to help others rather than looking to God to intervene. While ‘The Boss’ is present to give questions, the answers must come from within.

How Larry stands up to challenges and adversity is like the Torah’s stories about men like Job and Jonah who had their lives thrown into upheaval but were able to get over the anguish by holding true to their faith in God but looking inwards in their own strength, knowledge, and belief in morality and good will to make it through on the other side better than before. Life throws challenges at us every day and how we react to them and try to get through it with our God-given wisdom, kindness, compassion, patience, and reasoning will decide how far we can proceed in life to get back to being successful. Fortune is not everlasting, and faith will not provide good fortune. What can provide good fortune is to do your best, help yourself and others around you, and look to your own inner beliefs and values to guide you through the tough times.

‘A Serious Man’ is about a man who considers himself to be serious but has to struggle for others to call him ‘serious.’ In an effort to be taken seriously, Larry does end up struggling to fulfill the other important parts of his life that require his attention. He can forget to be loving and caring to his wife, attentive and helpful to his children, and more involved within the Jewish community including at his son’s Hebrew school. Larry is not a bad man but the cracks in his life cause some bad events to happen including events for which there is no logical explanation. Larry does his best to be a good man and although he is flawed, bad things happen out of nowhere to him.

The test throughout this excellent film is how do you claw back from adversity and try to give yourself the best shot at having good things happen in your life. Even if your family may appear to be cursed or have a string of bad fortune dating back to the shtetls of Eastern Europe, how do you turn it around so your son or your daughter don’t deal with the same tragedies and setbacks? There are no easy answers in ‘A Serious Man’ but the Coen Brothers make it clear that it is not wise to look to God to solve the problems for you or provide the answers.

The central message of this film is not just for Jews but for all people. God may have provided life’s questions for you to answer but it’s up to you alone to answer them throughout your life. While you may lose faith in hose providing counsel or advice or in the religion itself, the film makes clear that you have to believe in yourself, to help yourself pull through the pain and sorrow, and to help other people, especially the family and friends closest to you, who are going through tough times as well, whose aid and assistance you can provide may be able to help you get to the right direction in life again and to lead you to a better place than you were before.

Loew Vineyards

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Mount Airy, Maryland, United States

Anatomy of A Scene – “I came in at the end…The best is over.”

“A lot of the best scenes in the show revolve around this conflicted mobster, Tony Soprano (played brilliantly by James Gandolfini), who suffers from both innate anxiety and depression, along with his dysfunctional families who intend to drag him down if he can’t help doing it himself.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0cQOej9nuho

‘The Sopranos’ is one of the most highly acclaimed television shows of all-time and is not just a show about a man caught between his real family and his mafia family but also about a certain period in American life. A lot of the best scenes in the show revolve around this conflicted mobster, Tony Soprano (played brilliantly by James Gandolfini), who suffers from both innate anxiety and depression, along with his dysfunctional families who intend to drag him down if he can’t help doing it himself.

There is a particular scene early in the 1st season where we are first getting to know the character of Tony Soprano and what makes him tick. The first scene in his therapist’s office, which would be a recurring motif throughout the show, has Tony trying to pin down the roots of his depression, which is what brought him to Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) in the first place. Tony has no idea what is causing him the blues, pontificating openly that it could be “stress, maybe?” especially as he has recently started to have panic attacks occur out of nowhere.

Dr. Melfi asks him about what could be causing the stress he is feeling? Tony isn’t sure but believes that “it’s good to be at something at the ground floor.” Now, the audience can assume what he is referring to is the La Cosa Nostra or Italian-American mafia, which is on the decline as the show first aired in 1999 and could be on its way out. However, since Dr. Melfi isn’t aware yet who Tony Soprano is and what his life in the mafia like, she assumes he means about life in suburban America in the 1990s, which had a lot of amenities including bigger houses and bigger cars with a more privacy, but for which has left many Americans feel unfulfilled.

“I came in at the end…the best is over.” While Tony may be referring to the historical arc of the Italian mafia and how it’s in irrevocable decline, the show paints it to Melfi and the audience as something deeper yet not as pronounced. Melfi replies, “Many Americans, I think, feel that way”, implying that while the country has gotten materially wealthier and more prosperous to a degree, our family and perhaps spiritual life has been on the decline for quite some time and perhaps has led to a moral decline.

While Tony was inferred to be talking about the mafia and how he is now boss of his Soprano crime family unlike his father who never ‘reached the heights like him’ or wasn’t as successful materially in terms of his life in the suburbs, Tony still feels unfulfilled by his success.

While his father wasn’t as successful in the mafia life, he still passed it down to his son, but in those days, Tony feels as many Americans would relate to that there was more pride and togetherness in their communities among families of different backgrounds. In the atomized suburbs, it’s harder to connect with those in your family or to form as tight of cultural or religious or social bonds with people of your background.

“But in a lot of ways, he had it better. He (Tony’s father) had it better. He had his people. They had their standards. Their pride. Now, today, what do we got?” The scene also demonstrates that this was filmed in 1999, just at the turn to the 21st century, before 9/11 happened, the 2008 financial crisis, the election of Donald Trump as President, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Even on the cusp of 2000, the show demonstrates that not all was rosy in America and there was a sense of dissatisfaction back then with where the country was headed and that the ’best days may be behind us’ in more ways than one.

While the focus is on the decline of mob life in this scene and in the show, which does so consistently over six brilliant seasons, it also highlights a parallel loss of faith and trust in American institutions as well as the rise of greed, malaise, and apathy in our cultural attitudes, and a sense that maybe American decline is our future. While the scene is not overtly political, you have Tony reading the Newark Star-Ledger, a New Jersey daily paper, indicating that “President Clinton warns of Medicare going bust in Year 2000.”

The front-page newspaper headline tells you that even back then in 1999, there were worries about our institutions eroding, the promises meant to be kept at danger of being broken after many decades of effort, and the average middle-aged suburbanite feeling unsatisfied about the prospect of a dimmer future, especially for his or her children. While Tony’s parents were better off because of their closer family and community ties in the big city or the exurbs nearby, he was not able to say the same about his suburban life. Even at a time where his generation were able to still have had a better life materially and perhaps financially than their parents, would their children be worse off in both ways if the decline is to pass, both financially and spiritually?

Twenty-two years later since this scene first aired on HBO, it is interesting to look back at Tony’s anxieties as being prophetic rather than misplaced. Younger Americans of my generation and the generation behind me look at it reasonably and think that Tony Soprano, despite his crimes and misdeeds and his Mafia boss life, may have had one thing right: “I came in at the end, the best is over…” Now, the question remains, how do we deal with it as a country and as a people?

Nighttime Game at Camden Yards

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Orioles Park at Camden Yards; Baltimore, Maryland, United States

Marble Canyon

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Marble Canyon, Arizona, United States

Diamondbacks Game at Chase Field

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Chase Field; Phoenix, Arizona, United States

Desert Botanical Garden

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Desert Botanical Garden; Phoenix, Arizona, United States

The Japanese Friendship Garden

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park; San Diego, California, United States

“Got to, This is America, Man…” – Anatomy of a Scene

“‘The Wire’ is the greatest television show of all-time. Even as the show nears the 20th anniversary since when it first aired on American cable television network, HBO, it still rings as culturally relevant and as emotionally stirring as it was when it first debuted in the Summer of 2002. While technology may be different now, the characters would not be the same, the setting could be different from the show, the overall themes, and messages from ‘The Wire’ as well as the institutions that the show focused on for five great seasons have not changed that much.”

‘The Wire’ is the greatest television show of all-time. Even as the show nears the 20th anniversary since when it first aired on American cable television network, HBO, it still rings as culturally relevant and as emotionally stirring as it was when it first debuted in the Summer of 2002. While technology may be different now, the characters would not be the same, the setting could be different from the show, the overall themes, and messages from ‘The Wire’ as well as the institutions that the show focused on for five great seasons have not changed that much.

I could write a thesis on ‘The Wire’ and devote at least 10,000 words on the show in terms of an in-depth breakdown on how it’s the modern equivalent to a Shakespeare tragedy or drama. However, in this ‘Anatomy of a Scene’, I am going to focus on one of my favorite scenes in this classic television show. This scene is the opening one for the entire five-season series and discusses a core tenet of the show not just about what kind of ‘game’ that the characters play, but also the ‘game’ inherent to the setting of Baltimore, Maryland as well as America as a country.

The opening scene, more than any other scene, even if it is the 1st, one pinpoints exactly what ‘The Wire’ is about. In the first shots, you can see a young man lay face down dead on the ground on some dark city street with the police collecting evidence and a main character, who is a detective, questioning a potential witness. The associate of the victim talks about how they were involved with street gambling and how it was not fair that it was not right to kill the victim, non-ironically known as ‘snot boogie’ to the game’s players. The victim of the crime has a real name but is endeared to the rest of the game’s players by that nickname alone.

As the witness explains to Detective Jimmy McNulty of Baltimore Police, ‘Snot Boogie’ was the victim of the crime, but his associate did not expect him to be killed for stealing from the other players of the street game for playing craps. The associate tells McNulty that the victim is known for stealing and grabbing the money to run away but they never want beyond just ‘beating his ass’ up a bit.

While it is a grim description of the dangers of gambling illegally on the streets, the witness to McNulty’s murder case explains that there is an unwritten rule to the ‘game’ of street gambling and that ‘Snot Boogie’ should not have been murdered for stealing from the other players. Nobody ever tried to kill the victim even after he was found guilty of stealing money from the street game players even if they did often catch him and beat him for having done it multiple times.

The witness refuses to tell McNulty who killed his associate in this game and does not want to go to court even though he believes it was disgraceful how ‘Snot Boogie’ was killed because they always let him play even though he would always steal from them.
“I got to ask ya, if every time Snot Boogie would grab the money and run away…why’d you even let him in the game?”
“…What?”
“If Snot Boogie always stole the money, why did you always let him play?”
“Got to, This America, man.”

McNulty looks incredulously as the witness tells him this reasoning because at its face, it does not make much sense for a guy who steals from folks repeatedly to continue playing a dangerous and illegal craps street game. It’s clear to both characters that life itself, and life in America is far from being fair at the end of the day especially a man got killed, which was against to how the game was being played, according to the witness, even if he was stealing from them.

Even if the game is fair or is rigged to some degree, it occurs to the witness and then McNulty after he sees the guy’s reasoning that even if the game was not meant to be won and the result would always be the same, you still let the game play out. The game may not be fair like life itself in general or in America, but it must be played by everyone. It may not be a fair shot and there is no equal outcome, but there is equal opportunity out there for each player to be involved even if someone cheats, steals, and comes back to play again. The game exists for everyone to be given a shot at it and if they don’t, that’s against the principle of life itself and life in America.

There are tragic consequences to this craps game for Snot Boogie who loses his life senselessly as well as for the men who will go to jail for it or lose all their money, but the game goes on and it’s open to everyone. Like the witness explains, the game deserves to be played by everyone equally although the outcome may not be something everyone will like or even will cost some people dearly. This excellent opening scene opens with the most prominent themes of The Wire perfectly and almost seems like a graphic novel come to life. Its visuals are striking, the characters are who you can relate to on a human level, and there is a lot of foreshadowing about the rest of the show and its messages to the viewers from this tone-setting scene.

‘The Wire’ is a show about the early stages of 21st century America in its first decade of the 2000s but it is as still as relevant about 20 years later. The metaphor of this opening scene for not just a couple of guys in a craps game gone wrong in the street can pair directly too what can happen when capitalism can go off the rails when someone tries to beat the rules or try to gain an advantage when they are put at a disadvantage to begin with. If the game is rigged from the get-go even if you’re given a shot at it, what’s the point in playing by the rules? If you can beat the system even if there are dire consequences, is it not worth trying?

‘Snot Boogie’s associates knew he was a thief and a cheater because they believed that he still deserved a shot at winning like everyone else even though it was likely rigged so he would never make it after multiple tries. As the opening scene of the greatest television show of all-time shows the viewer, everybody can play the game even if they are a cheater in the sense of having equal opportunity, but what happens when no one is held accountable when the odds are stacked against them from the start of the game and there is no other way to win than by cheating the system and facing serious consequences?

The show may not be defined by its iconic opening scene but as you find as you watch the entire series, the metaphor for what that scene represents about the show and about the ethic that binds American society together long after you finish watching each of its five seasons.

Balboa Park

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: San Diego, California, United States

%d bloggers like this: