Larry Gopnick does not care for where his life is going. His trials start off mundane: he has to work to support his family, including his unemployed brother Larry, and the cost of his son’s bar mitzvah. A student, Clive, offers a bribe to change his grade on the final exam. His wife demands a divorce. There’s an argument with his goyische neighbors (“Very much so,” as he calls them) over the property line. So far, so typical. But this is a Coen Brothers film, and the Coen Brothers never stop at typical. Larry’s wife, very calmly, very reasonably, kicks him out of the house. We never see her working, and A Serious Man takes place in the sixties, a time when it would be reasonable to assume a wife and mother wouldn’t collect a paycheck; so, presumably, this isn’t just their house, but Larry’s property, paid for by the sweat of his brow. He suggests that maybe his wife, Judith, should move in with her new lover, Sy Ableman (Sy Ableman?). In one of those moments of Kafkaesque cognitive dissonance the Coens love so much, they look at him as if he’s the one asking too much. “Larry — Larry, you are jesting.”
It’s all downhill from there. The student’s father threatens him with a defamation lawsuit if he tells anyone his son has been giving bribes, and with theft if he doesn’t change the grade. Larry’s up for tenure at the university, but someone keeps sending slanderous letters to his bosses. He crashes his car. Sy crashes his, fatally, but instead of solving his marital problems, his death somehow leaves Larry stuck with the bill for his funeral. Arthur gets in trouble with the law, first for gambling, and then for something more serious. And so on, and on, and on. No wonder so many critics have drawn a line from the trials of Larry to a more famous longsuffering Jew, Job.
Like Job, Larry goes looking for answers. Unlike Job, he never seems to find them. But is that because they’re not there, or because he simply doesn’t see them? The world of the Coen Brothers’ films often seems to be one of aimless, godless chaos, where, in Burn After Reading, the most goodhearted characters can be casually murdered by egotistical assholes and never spoken of again, where the only lesson is “Don’t do it again. Fucked if I know what we did though”; where in The Big Lebowski, a major character can drop dead of a heart attack, much like one of Larry’s lawyers does just as he’s about to announce his breakthrough, for reasons that have nothing to do with the plot and put that plot on hold indefinitely; where, in No Country for Old Men, life and death are literally up to the toss of a coin. And yet, this world is frequently subject to divine intervention, like the angelic janitor in The Hudsucker Proxy who literally stops time to save the hero’s life, or the flood that miraculously saves the heroes of O Brother Where Art Thou just as the prophets foretold. The prophet, in this case, was a blind hobo, but you take what you can get. In other words, it’s much like the world of their contemporary, Quentin Tarantino: sometimes bullets are stopped by divine grace, but sometimes, they shoot Marvin in the face.
There’s a suggestion of an invisible order within the chaos. Certainly, that’s what Rabbi Sott, the first rabbi Larry consults has to say: “I, too, have had the feeling of losing track of Hashem [God], which is the problem here. I too, have forgotten how to see Him in the world, and when that happens, you think, well, if I can’t see Him, He isn’t there. But that’s not the case!” He’s the junior rabbi, and Larry doesn’t seem willing to listen to him because of his age. We’ll cut him some slack since he can’t see his own movie, but it’s worth remembering how it opens: with a quotation from the rabbinical scholar Rashi, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” Like Danny, the junior rabbi has the simplicity of youth that Larry can’t see. At first, it might seem like he’s an overeager student falling back on a prepared script; does he only say losing track of Hashem is the problem here because he can say that to any problem? Like everyone else, he needs the concept of a gett (ritual divorce) explained to him, and while he cuts off Larry’s explanation to say “Oh, a gett!” as if he understands, his face makes it clear he doesn’t. At first, his speech about finding wonder in ordinary things like a parking lot seems like another platitude; certainly, the Coens are choosing a deliberately ridiculous example of mundane things to find wonder in. Sure, you can do that with a flower, but a parking lot? But as he gets going, you start to see his eagerness isn’t just youthful naïvete; or else, it is, but in the positive sense Rashi describes. “My God, Larry…Look at that parking lot.” And the Coens slyly use their visual storytelling to support his point: the very next shot, we’re looking at the kind plain grey asphalt you’d see in a parking lot. But they find a new angle on it, moving the camera right down to the ground, and the black and white flecks seem to sparkle like jewels. And living simply is, in Sy Ableman’s words, “so important.”
Larry tries to take it to heart; when he meets his lawyer the next day, he says, “Well, you know, the way I look at it, it’s an opportunity for me to sit down and figure things out, and just look at the world afresh, instead of just, you know, settling for the routine, tired old way of looking at things.” But one word, (“Really?”) is all it takes to shake his conviction. It’s too bad, because he already has a head start on Job. In that first meeting, he gets the answer to all Job’s questions: “The boss isn’t always right, but he’s always the boss.”
Finally, Larry gets to see the senior Rabbi, Nachter. He responds with a long story; it is, as Larry describes Schrödinger’s Cat to his students, a fable. A Jewish dentist finds a hidden message written in Hebrew, inside a goy’s teeth. The dentist spends weeks looking for more messages in more teeth, poring over every holy book he can find, numerologically transcribing the Hebrew letters into a phone number and driving across the state to see if it corresponds with a message from God. But Nachter doesn’t seem to understand the point of his own story: at no point in all his studies does the dentist ever think just to ask the goy. When Larry, with uncharacteristic insight, asks what happened to him after the end of the story, Nachter just shrugs and says, “The goy? Who cares?” Larry’s own search for answers goes along the same lines. We see him asking an awful lot of questions about God, but he never seems to ask God Himself any questions — not even a token shot of folded hands or an open Torah. Talking to God won’t bring pillars of fire and voices of thunder like a Hollywood biblical epic; but still, in the words of Rabbi Nachter, “Can’t hurt.”
But there’s a clearer missed connection here, and it’s not with God, but with his fellow mortals. When Larry talks to Clive about his grades, he makes no effort to understand or empathize with him. He doesn’t talk to him, he lectures, and he dismisses Clive’s offer to retake the test, not gently, but without even thinking about it. If Larry wanted a clear message from God, it doesn’t get much clearer than the instant karma he gets when he sees Clive on the street and starts cussing him out, directly causing his car crash. Larry’s first discussion with Judith about the divorce doesn’t even distract him from grading papers until he realizes what they’re talking about. And even then, they don’t to each other, they talk at or around each other, each asking questions the other won’t answer and answering questions no one asked. Despite what you’d expect from an adulterous lover, Sy Ableman reaches out warmly, maybe too warmly to Larry (given what we learn about his poison-pen letters, he might not be as sincere as he seems). Larry resists, awkwardly backing himself against a cabinet as he tries to get as far away as possible. These are two spectacular performances, by the way. As Larry, Michael Stuhlbarg is a master of the confused Coen face, and his vocal work also beautifully conveys the enormous strain of a man whose voice, like his mind, is always on the verge of cracking, even at his most authoritative. As Sy, Fred Melamed is just the opposite, an unyielding tank of a man. His voice has the depth and authority of Orson Welles or Leonard Nimoy; more recently, he was able to turn a bland, unintimidating hot pink cartoon into an epic villain for the final season of Adventure Time just by sheer vocal power.
The next time they meet, Larry responds to Sy’s threats of intimacy by saying “I’m thinking, really, it’s best to leave these kinds of discussions to the lawyers.” The messages Sy leaves for Larry at his office might as well be messages from God with the solutions to Larry’s problems: first, “Let’s talk,” then, “Let’s have a good talk.” There’s a brief moment of vulnerability with the man from “the Columbian Records Club” when Larry breaks down and confesses he’s been in “a terrible auto accident.” But that only lasts a moment, and within moments, he’s back on the offensive again, putting up an extremely unconvincing show of strength. Even with Arthur, he only seems interested in his problems as they affect him. He may wail and rend his garments over having to pay for Arthur’s legal bills, but he only takes them out of joyless obligation. When Arthur breaks down sobbing in the extremely depressing Jolly Roger motel, Larry doesn’t try to comfort him, just to quiet him. When Arthur runs screaming out of the room, Larry hesitates before he follows him, looking both ways to make sure nobody sees him. He finds Arthur hunched and sobbing over an empty swimming pool, and instead of commiserating with him, corrects and lectures him like a child. It takes until the end of their discussion before Larry can take his brotherly role as comforter. “Not him! Me!” Larry shouts when his lawyer misunderstands his moping about his age to be a comment about the elder Rabbi Marshak. But those three words are the cause of so many of his problems. Even when the full weight of his problems forces fim to be vulnerable, he still keeps people away. Just look at his body language: his limbs aren’t spread out to give or accept comfort, but folded in. The final words of Nachtner’s story suggest that maybe he does understand it: “The teeth? We don’t know. A sign from Hashem? Don’t know. Helping others? Couldn’t hurt.” Human connection — so important.
Nachtner’s intended message may be just as useful to understand the film. The dentist realizes he will never understand the message. He goes back to his life, and eventually, “like a toothache,” it stops bothering him. In other words, he learns to live with simplicity. The childlike Arthur might seem like he’d understand this, but, just like Larry, he has an incredible ability to get the wrong message. He develops the “Mentaculus,” a “probability map of the universe,” the sacred math that Kabbalists have sought after for centuries. What does he do with it? He uses it to cheat at cards. Does he use the money to find a place of his own? He gives it to Danny because he can’t think of anything else to do with it. In the same way, Larry misses a message that even the audience can pick up on. When Judith tells him about the letters Sy sent to the university about him, nothing in his face suggests he’s made the connection to his secret detractor.
Danny lives simply; in fact, his drug habit, far from a sin, may be helping him to reach that goal. While Judaism, like most major religions, forbids the use of intoxicating drugs, many use them as a sacrament, a way to come closer to God: peyote in North America, hashish in the Middle East, and Danny’s drug of choice, marijuana, for the Rastafarians. At first, Danny getting high at his bar mitzvah might seem profane and ridiculous; but the Coens always find the sublime in the ridiculous. His drug-addled haze, so wonderfully simulated by the Coens’ use of color and focus, gives him the otherworldly consciousness of authentic spiritual experience. Even more so, there’s the transcendence of his meeting with Rabbi Marshak. His office is a truly otherworldly place, full of strange artifacts like pickled creatures in jars and a map of the human mouth (could he have left the message in the goy’s teeth?). The rabbi himself, gentle, a bit of a trickster, and impossibly old, seems like an emanation of the divine, haloed by a beard that reflects (or emits?) ethereal light. Even his speech to Danny sounds like a distortion of Danny’s tetrahydrocannabinolated mind. But there’s a moment of grace that’s very real: Rabbi Marshak returns Danny his lifesaving radio even though it had been confiscated by the agents of justice. Under the influence, Larry seems to enter a state of grace of his own. We see him contemplating a glass as it reflects (or glows?) light onto his face. He seems to finally understand the fable of the parking lot — at least until he’s interrupted by sirens.
In the end, Larry doesn’t take the way of grace. Faced with the temptation of his mounting legal bills, he takes the money and changes Clive’s grade. And then, with a hilariously half-hearted attack of conscience, edits it from a C to a C-minus. Danny gets a gift he doesn’t deserve. Larry gets exactly what he deserves. The phone rings almost as soon as he puts his pencil down. The doctor has news for him. We never find out what it is, but it doesn’t sound good. He gets the message from God he asked for, and as Rabbi Scott warned, he doesn’t like it. “Actions have consequences,” he reminds Clive at the beginning. If this is the first cause-and-effect relationship we see between Larry’s actions and their consequences, it might be because it’s the first real action he’s taken. When Judith announces she wants a divorce, his immediate response is, “But we haven’t done anything!” and he repeats that he hasn’t done anything two more times by the end of the film. And that’s the problem: there is such a thing as a sin of omission. As we’ve seen, when he does do good, it’s only out of grim obligation. And when evil’s done to him, he just goes right along with it, schlepping himself from his bed to the cot to the Jolly Roger, agreeing to pay for Sy’s funeral because he doesn’t know what else to do, letting the fatal envelope of dollar bills collect dust in his drawer like the tell-tale heart instead of showing Clive the consequences of his actions. Taking action — so important.
“I’m not an evil man!” he sobs to one of his coworkers. But is he a good one? Let alone a Serious Man?