(Warning: This is not a review in any normal sense of the word, but an analysis. Don’t bother reading this until you’ve seen A Serious Man – this analysis presumes that you have seen it, and it won’t make much sense until you do. That said, whether you are Jew or Gentile, you should see this film. It is beautifully crafted, thought-provoking, deeply spiritual, and serious in a way that the vast majority of the output of the film industry is not.)
A Serious Man is the kind of film that doesn’t get made in Hollywood very often, and is an example of the sort of small-budget personal project that studios occasionally allow a successful director to make as an indulgence after a big commercial success (which in this case was No Country For Old Men). It opened without fanfare, did reasonably well on the arthouse circuit (I first saw it at the Angelika Film Center in New York), earned enough to pay back its modest budget with a little profit on top, and faded into obscurity. Yet what Hollywood does very often make, and what it markets aggressively, is brainless nonsense which, if it deals with religious faith at all, is almost always openly hostile to it. A Serious Man, however, is a thoughtful meditation on the nature of faith that, although overtly Jewish in its themes, will resonate just as much with anyone (certainly any Christian) who has struggled with doubt and who has looked for a sign from God in order to sustain them in the face of uncertainty.
Uncertainty is, in fact, a central theme of A Serious Man. Its prologue, set in an unnamed Jewish shtetl in Eastern Europe in the 19th century, may seem unconnected to the main plot, and in fact it is in terms of story, but it establishes concepts that will recur through the entire film. In it, a husband and wife are presented with what is essentially the worst-case scenario of uncertainty: a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. They receive a visitor who may simply be an old acquaintance, or who may be a dybbuk (a sort of Jewish demon) in the guise of the acquaintance. There is evidence for both possibilities, thus creating an uncertainty. And yet the very thing that makes a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario so awful is that it presents the need to act in the face of uncertainty; doing nothing is as much of a choice, and as subject to bad consequences, as taking any positive acton is. The husband and wife face a decision: either kill the visitor, or don’t. If they do kill him, and it turns out that he was not a dybbuk, they are murderers; if they don’t kill him, and it turns out that he was a dybbuk, then he will claim them as soon as they let their guard down. It is a life-and-death decision, and it must be made immediately, with no opportunity available to gather more information on which to base the decision.
The couple are split on what decision to make: the husband, who claims to be “a rational man”, favors not killing the visitor, while the wife, whose faith is more overt, favors killing him. This dividing line represents another theme of the film – the limits of rationality. Yes, the husband may be rational, but rational choice relies on (among other things) a sufficient amount of reliable data on which to act. Rationality is a data analysis tool; without enough reliable data to analyze, rationality is useless. Thus the husband is rendered unable to make a decision; it is ultimately the wife who acts, stabbing the visitor through the heart with an icepick. But even here, we are left with uncertainty; the visitor survives being stabbed in the heart, which suggests that he was a dybbuk, but bleeds from his wound, which suggests that he was not one. As the visitor disappears into the night, we are left still uncertain as to what he was, and yet the point of the story was not to provide an answer, but only to raise a question.
After the credits, the film reopens in the setting of Minnesota during the late 1960s. It also introduces a persistent leitmotif – the Jefferson Airplane song “Somebody To Love” used as a sign of the presence of God, of His word, and of His judgment. Understanding this allows us to see the use of the song to open the main story (it will eventually close the story as well) as an invocation in the sense that it is used in a religious ceremony. It is used throughout the film as a sign saying: God is here.
Now we meet our protagonist, Professor Larry Gopnik. We first see him getting a checkup from his doctor, and then explaining the infamous Schrodinger’s Cat problem to a class full of students. With this, the forces in play in the prologue – faith, uncertainty, and rationality – are reintroduced. The fact that Larry is a physics professor is key to the progression of the story. Larry is so deeply in tune with the physical, tangible, and mathematical that he has been left fundamentally out of tune with the spiritual and metaphysical. He will spend the entire movie looking for a sign from God, and indeed they will come, one after the next, but his will be unable to see them. Like the episodes of F-Troop that his son complains of not being able to watch on the family TV, a signal is being broadcast but not received. God is there – we have already been told that He is in that place – but Larry’s antenna is misaligned, and the image will come in too fuzzy to be recognizable to him.
We next end up in Larry’s office for his encounter with Clive, a student who has failed his midterm. When Clive protests that the midterm was all math, which he wasn’t expecting in a physics class, Larry reminds him that math underlies all physics. Without understanding the math that is behind physics, all you can see is the surface of it; the truth of how it really works will remain hidden from you. Clive insists that his grade was unjust, and that if he could take the test again, knowing what would be on it, he would pass; but Larry refuses to allow him to “retake the test until he gets a grade he likes”. As the movie progresses, we see that Clive and Larry are in fact parallel characters. Clive cannot look beyond the surface of physics to see what is really there and how it really works in the same way that Larry cannot see beyond the surface of the metaphysical world. Larry goes to temple on Shabbat, ensures that his son is ready to get through his Bar Mitzvah, consults a rabbi on important matters – all things that an observant Jew in good standing with his religious community ought to do. But these all sit at the surface of his religion; Larry can never quite allow himself to see the living God behind all of it, even when that God makes Himself apparent.
But there is more: Larry too is about to take a test. Larry too does not know what’s going to be on it. And Larry too will face the consequences of failure, with no opportunity to retake the test that he will be given.
Larry’s test begins when his wife informs him that she wants a divorce in order to marry the recent widower Sy Abelman. Abelman is a sleazy slick-talker, an insincere glad-hander whose soft velvet words mask his nature as an unscrupulous homewrecker and cowardly slanderer. But Larry, who can see nothing beyond the surface in any area except physics, cannot see Abelman for what he truly is. Thus, he is left helpless in the face of calamity. Fortunately for Larry, during a weekend picnic he has an encounter with a family friend, whose assessment of the crisis enveloping him is that “It’s an opportunity to learn how things really are…. It’s not always easily deciphering what God is trying to tell you”. With this, she puts him on the road to his encounters with three wise men – a young rabbi, a middle-aged rabbi, and an old rabbi – who he will see in an attempt to make sense of what is happening to him.
Larry’s search for a sign from God brings up some questions: What would a sign look like? How would he recognize one if it appeared? What exactly is he expecting? As a man who deals with the physical, tangible, and mathematical, the sign that he is expecting – the only kind of sign that he is tuned to be able to receive – is a physical, tangible, and mathematical one. Larry is a rational man, living in a rationalist age, and the only sign that he is ready to accept would be something akin to a literal giant hand extending from the clouds as it might in some Monty Python skit. But that is not how the metaphysical works, and while God may provide a sign, He is under no obligation to provide us with exactly the sign we were hoping for. As the second rabbi that he visits points out: “Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.” At very least, it is our obligation to go out of our way to recognize the signs that God gives us, which Larry is either unwilling or unable to do by going beyond the framework in which he is comfortable.
Though the Coen Brothers portray the encounters with the rabbis in their trademark absurdist style, what must be understood when watching them is that all three rabbis are right. Each of them responds to Larry in an absolutely valid and correct way. In short: The first rabbi tells Larry the truth. The second rabbi shows Larry the truth. And the third rabbi sends Larry away, because if he wasn’t able to understand what the first two said to him, then there’s nothing to be gained from any further attempts to get him to grasp the truth. Yes, the third rabbi is the wisest of all, and has a deeper understanding than the others, but here we come back again to what Larry was trying to explain to Clive about the physics test: You can’t go on to more advanced concepts until you fully understand the fundamentals; it’s a waste of time to try to go into depth about something if you’re unable to look beyond the surface at all.
And so Larry has a short encounter with the first rabbi, who tells him that God is everywhere around us if only we open our eyes and see Him. “With the right perspective, you can see Hashem”, says the young rabbi, and this is profoundly true. But Larry does not have the right perspective, and as such, he cannot make sense of what the rabbi is trying to tell him. Larry leaves unsatisfied.
Meanwhile, the rest of Larry’s life continues to deteriorate, and God continues to send signs that Larry is incapable of seeing. Clive has attempted to bribe Larry into giving him a passing grade by leaving an envelope full of money on his desk. Larry has responded by calling Clive into his office and telling him that he will go to the department head and report the bribery attempt. A short time later, Clive’s father comes to Larry’s house to confront him about the situation, and presents him with another “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario: either accept the bribe and issue a passing grade, or, if he goes to the department head with an allegation of attempted bribery, Clive will sue him for defamation. When Larry asserts that this is illogical, Clive’s father responds with a statement so bizarre that it can only be a sign from God: “Please, accept the mystery”.
This is precisely what Larry should do. But again, he does not. While visiting his divorce lawyer’s office, Larry gets a call from his son, who complains that “F-Troop is still fuzzy”. Indeed it is – the signal is still not being received.
There will be one last attempt to make Larry understand the truth by telling it to him. This time, the messenger of God appears in the form of the Columbia Record Club, which calls Larry at work regarding the membership that his son has signed him up for without asking. His introductory albums have all been delivered, and now it is time for him to pay for the latest album he has been sent, Santana’s Abraxas. Larry protests that he never agreed to join the Columbia Record Club. Still shaken up from a minor fender bender he had while driving to work, he shouts into the phone:
“I didn’t ask for Santana Abraxas! I didn’t listen to Santana Abraxas! I didn’t do anything!”
This is an odd and obvious anachronism in the film; it is set in 1967, but Abraxas was not released until 1970. The choice of this exact album, then, had to have been a conscious choice on the part of the Coen Brothers. So what is its significance? The word “abraxas” is a very old one, used by the Gnostics among others. It has many related meanings, but among them are “the uncreated Father”, “the Almighty God” (this was St. Jerome’s interpretation of it) or even “the holy word”. Once this is understood, Larry’s statement can be roughly translated as:
“I didn’t ask for the word of God! I didn’t listen to the word of God! I didn’t do anything!”
To which the Columbia representative replies: “We can’t make you listen to the record!” Indeed, Larry cannot be forced to listen. But God, who in His mercy will give Larry every fair chance, will now try to show him the truth.
The call from the Columbia Record Club is interrupted by the news that Sy Abelman has been killed in a car crash; one which occurred at the exact same moment as Larry’s minor accident. In a single instant, God smote Larry’s worst enemy; he punished the wicked and delivered Larry’s family back to him – with her lover dead and with nowhere else to go, his wife will have no choice but to take him back. Larry’s life has suddenly turned the corner both personally and professionally (Abelman has also been the person writing slanderous letters about him to his university’s tenure committee. With him gone, they will stop.), and God has provided for him. As for Larry’s own fender bender, it is a mere reminder of the slings and arrows of life to which we are all subject; compared to the victory he has been granted, it is nothing.
Larry should take this as a sign; he should be thankful to God for all that he has (or perhaps, all that he now has back). But he still cannot see the presence of God nor be grateful for what he has received from Him.
Let us here take a moment to address a line that appears over and over in the film: “I didn’t do anything”. This is used as an excuse; as a reason why all that happens to Larry is unjust. But now we are far enough along that we can see the true meaning of the prologue: Sometimes you must do something; and sometimes you must do something even in the face of uncertainty. Larry has, in fact, not dome anything. Larry didn’t do anything when his family was nearly torn to pieces by the Sy Abelman. Larry didn’t do anything as his chances at tenure were nearly destroyed by the anonymous letters received by the tenure committee. Having not yet either changed Clive’s grade nor gone to his department head, Larry hasn’t done anything about the bribery attempt. Larry hasn’t done anything about the property dispute he has been having with his neighbor. Larry didn’t do anything – neither giving in to temptation nor issuing a firm rejection – in the face of advances from the lonely housewife next door. And Larry hasn’t done anything about the messages he keeps receiving from God, either. Like Clive, who didn’t study any math in preparation for his physics exam, Larry has made no serious attempt to look beneath the surface and to see what’s really going on.
Larry hasn’t done anything – and that’s the problem.
All of which leads Larry to the second rabbi. This one tells him a story about another member of the congregation, a dentist who found some Hebrew lettering carved into the back faces of the teeth of a non-Jewish patient. The dentist searched for an explanation, and found none. For a time, it bothered him to the point of being unable to either eat or sleep. Eventually, he went to the rabbi to ask if it really was a sign from God, and if so what it could mean. He asked if it means that he should lead a more righteous life, and help others.
The rabbi replied by telling the dentist an obvious truth: “The teeth? We don’t know. A sign from Hashem? We don’t know. Helping others? Couldn’t hurt.”
This answer was simple, truthful, and good. It made the lives of all involved better. The dentist, already a decent man, went home more determined than ever to be a pillar of his community, a good husband to his wife, and a good friend to those around him. In time, he stopped investigating what happened, and simply accepted the mystery.
Again, Larry is unsatisfied by the answer. Again, he cannot see what is beyond the surface. What the story of the lettering carved in the non-Jew’s teeth proves is that a sign from God often shows up where it will least be expected. Larry couldn’t understand that you take the message where and how it shows up, not where or how you were expecting it or wanted it.
Why a random non-Jew’s teeth? While we’re at it, why F-Troop? Why the Columbia Record Club? Why Jefferson Airplane?
Why a burning bush? It isn’t our place to critique the method that God chooses to deliver His messages; our place is to listen.
What Larry further cannot understand is that sometimes the question is the answer. An example of this is Descartes’s famous formulation “I think, therefore I am”. The significance of this is found in the way in which it answers a question that lies at the bottom of the darkest pit of philosophy, which is: “How can I even be sure that I myself really exist?” Descartes’s answer, stunning in its simplicity, was essentially to ask in return: “If I do not exist, then who’s asking the question?” The fact that the question exists at all is enough to provide its own answer.
The fact that the mystery exists at all should be its own answer. If we know that the mystery exists, then instead of asking “What is the solution to the mystery?”, we can content ourselves with asking “Who created the mystery?”.
The mystery is the sign. The question is the answer.
And if we are not content with that, it is wise to remember that Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, but that helping others couldn’t hurt.
As for Larry, his attempts to make sense of what is happening to him without either accepting the mystery or allowing himself to see the signs that are right in front of him are ultimately as futile as his brother’s attempts to create a “probability map of the universe” in his notebook.
Which brings us to the third rabbi, who simply sends Larry away. And why should he do anything else?
It is in the meeting that the old rabbi has with Larry’s son, however, that we can see a glimpse of what he would have told Larry had he been able to understand it. For the old rabbi has seen the signs; he has listened to the word of God.
“Grace Slick, Marty Balin, Paul Kantner, Jorma Koukonen: these are the members… of the Airplane!”
How did he know about the song? Was the portable radio still playing it when the old rabbi got it back from the school principal? Certainly not. But he has heard the message nonetheless, and he understands what it means.
What does it mean? The old rabbi explains it by first posing a question:
“When the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope within you dies… Then what?”
And then providing the answer:
“Be a good boy.”
That’s it. It is as simple as that. Yes, there are more complex ways it could be expressed. One could say instead that by its nature, life is full of uncertainty; that uncertainty is an essential part of the human experience. Despite this, moral choices must often be made in the face of uncertainty; that, too, is part of the human experience. Yet if all of our choices were based on certainty, then they would be, in a moral sense, meaningless. Choosing in the face of uncertainty is the heart of agency; we can make rational and moral choices even in the face of uncertainty because we have agency. This goes back to the very first man and woman. Eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil gave man an understanding of moral choices, and once he understood moral choices, he could be held accountable for them. So yes, we are responsible for our moral choices, even in the face of uncertainty, but fortunately, we do have a guide to making them. God spoke from the burning bush to give us some of it, and was crucified upon Golgotha to give us the rest. Like all good moral teaching, it can be as complex or as simple as you want it to be; Christ Himself once summarized the whole essence of God’s law as: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself”, and it really can be stated as simply as that. Thousands upon thousands of pages of commentary – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Zoroastrian, Rastafarian – exist to explain what God is trying to tell us about how we should live. But at its simplest, the message is only this: “Be a good boy”.
In a dream sequence earlier in the movie, Larry told his physics class that “Even though you can’t figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the midterm”. Larry hasn’t been able to figure anything out, but now he will be tested on it anyway. An enormous bill arrives at his office from his lawyer. Clive’s envelope full of money – about which he still hasn’t done anything – is sitting in his desk drawer. He takes out the envelope, and his gradebook, and thinks for a long moment about what to do.
If he had seen and understood the message, then the answer would be obvious: “Be a good boy”.
Here, let us flash back to a conversation that took place in the same office earlier in the film, as Larry confronted Clive about his bribery attempt:
Larry: “Actions have consequences.”
Clive: “Yes, often.”
Larry: “No, always. Actions always have consequences. In this office, actions have consequences. Not just physics. Morally.”
Larry’s choice reveals the parallelism between himself and Clive – everything he told Clive at the beginning of the film now applies to him – sometimes we must choose in the face of uncertainty, but we are still responsible for the choices that we make. Sometimes we must face tests, and understand that if we fail, there will be no opportunity to retake them until we get a grade we like.
But Larry has learned nothing from all the things that have happened, including from his own words. He hesitates for a moment over his gradebook, then changes Clive’s grade to one that is barely passing. The instant he does so, the phone rings. It’s the doctor who he saw at the beginning of the film. He wants to see Larry about the results of his X-rays, immediately. We never learn what the results say, but it can’t be good.
We then cut to Larry’s son, again in Hebrew school. There is a tornado warning, and the school is evacuated. The students stand outside as their elderly teacher fumbles with the keys that unlock the building where they will take shelter. The son turns toward another student an sees behind him a tornado forming – very, very close. (Here we may note that God has always had something of a habit of appearing in the form of a whirlwind). We again hear the Jefferson Airplane, and…
And the movie ends. We learn no more of Larry’s fate, or of his son’s, just as we learned no more of the dybbuk or the husband and wife in the shtetl from the prologue. We begin and end with uncertainty.
There are, however, some things that bear saying about this final sequence of scenes.
The first is that in that office, actions have indeed had consequences. Not just physics. Morally. Sy Abelman’s actions had consequences, but Larry learned no more from that than he did from any other part of his spiritual journey – a journey that he sleepwalked through, not hearing anything, not seeing anything, not learning anything, and not doing anything. What is worse, when he finally does do something, it’s the wrong thing. And not only that, but he did it after God has granted him everything he could have wanted: his worst enemy has been vanquished, his family has been reunited, his son has been accepted as a member of his tribe, and he has just learned that he will be granted tenure. To make the wrong moral choice in the face of such providence smacks of ingratitude. It is not just an average sin or bad moral choice; it is an insult to God.
Larry has taken the test, and he has failed it.
Which brings us back to Schrodinger’s Cat. The office phone rings the very second after Larry makes his choice, and on the other end is the doctor with some very bad news about his test results. But… did those bad test results exist before Larry made his decision? Or were they sitting in a probability cloud, not fully materialized until he had chosen? With Schrodinger, there is no way to know whether the cat is dead or alive until we open the box, at which point we instantly and irrevocably know. With Larry, the results didn’t reach him until he had made his choice, at which point they did reach him – instantly and irrevocably.
It turns out that Larry did not just teach about Schrodinger’s Cat – unfortunately for him, Larry was Schrodinger’s Cat.