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.