While not autobiographical in any specific sense, A Serious Man examines the Coen brothers' roots with a deconstructing—and predictably quirky—look at a Midwestern Jewish family.
Scientifically and spiritually, Larry Gopnik believes that actions always have consequences. Good equals good. Bad results in bad. Gravity always works, causing the apple to fall close to the tree. Mathematical proofs never lie.
Larry's a mild-mannered physics professor in the 1960s. He's a nice guy and upright Jewish family man who always does what's expected of him. And that's why, when his life starts to crumble, he has a hard time believing it's actually happening to him. Surely this should be happening to somebody else who deserves it! Maybe to one of his negligent neighbors—the marijuana-smoking nude sunbather, for instance, or that steely-eyed redneck with all the guns?
But, no. It really is his nicely pressed world that's starting to split at the seams.
Out of the blue, Larry's wife, Judith, announces that she's divorcing him and marrying an unctuous, smooth-talking widower named Sy. She and Sy are so bold about their plans that they even tell Larry to pack his things and move to a nearby motel—for the kids' sake, of course. And he can take his emotionally distraught brother, Arthur, with him.
Being the nice guy that he is, Larry complies. He doesn't want to make waves or hurt the kids. Especially with his son Danny's Bar Mitzvah right around the corner. So he barely utters a peep of protest as he checks in at the Jolly Roger.
A car wreck. A tenure crisis at his university. Conflict with a failing student who demands an A anyway. Cops showing up at the front door. And a fence line dispute with that gun-loving goy next door. All are merely icing on Larry's rapidly collapsing cake.
What's going on? Larry begins to wonder. What horrible thing has he done to have earned such treatment? What does God want from him? Larry decides to find out. So he walks into a rabbi's office. …
Larry's dedication to trying to do what's right is inspiring in its own quiet way. It drives him nearly crazy and he doesn't always stand firm, but he at least outlasts everybody else in the story. He appears to love his manipulating, overwrought wife and his oblivious, self-absorbed kids in spite of their failings. He is very patient with, and comforting to, his fragile brother. He doesn't lash out at Sy. When he confronts his neighbor about the encroaching shed the man plans to build, he does so as responsibly as he can.
He has many a dream of doing the wrong thing. But when push comes to shove in his waking hours, he almost always passes the test.
Similarly, his desire to discover the spiritual meaning behind his travails is right on the money. …
The advice he gets from the rabbis he talks with, however, leaves quite a lot to be desired.
God factors heavily into A Serious Man's story. Larry is not really a man of fervent faith, but his travails are always seen through the lens of his Jewish heritage. So questions of Hashem's will are constantly being put forth. And the questions are good ones. It's the answers Larry gets that crash and burn. The first—young—rabbi he speaks with fixates on looking at life through "new, fresh" eyes as he makes a big deal out of the miracle of cars in the parking lot. The very best he can do is say, "You have to see these things as an expression of God's will."
The second—older—rabbi is worse. He rambles through parable-like tales that don't really have any relation to Larry's struggles. And when pinned down with a demand for an explanation of the stories he tells, he responds with a shrug. "What difference does it make?" he says. Larry exclaims, "It sounds like you don't know anything!"
The third—ancient—rabbi won't even talk to Larry. He's too busy thinking, his secretary says.
According to a family friend, "It's not always easy figuring out what God is trying to tell you." True enough, but Larry's been left in the lurch, and he knows it.
Elsewhere, Danny and a quartet of rabbis sing prayers in Hebrew during the lad's Bar Mitzvah. And I should note here that Danny is so stoned he's barely able to stand up, much less recite. In an opening scene, a woman says in Yiddish, "God has cursed us." Then, when she is sure she's saved her home from a ghostly invasion (by stabbing a man in the chest), she states, "Blessed is the Lord. Good riddance to evil."
Larry climbs up on the roof to adjust his TV antenna and spots his neighbor, Mrs. Samsky, sunbathing in the nude in her backyard (displaying full-frontal nudity from a distance). When Larry meets the woman and confesses that he and his wife are separated, she suggestively asks him if he's taking "advantage of his new freedoms." Larry later dreams of having sex with the woman while she straddles him wearing a bra. (The scene includes graphic sexual movements and sounds.)
In another dream, Sy slams Larry up against a blackboard and coarsely states that he's had sex with Judith. A pair of policemen say that Arthur has been arrested for "solicitation and sodomy." Danny's question about what sodomy is doesn't get answered.
In the opening segment set in the 1800s, a woman stabs a man in the chest with an ice pick. As blood begins to soak his shirt, the elderly man hobbles out into the snow.
Larry triggers a three-car pile-up in town. We don't see it, but Sy is also involved in a wreck. Larry's angry gun-toting neighbor returns from a hunting trip with a bloody deer carcass strapped to his station wagon's roof. Later, in one of Larry's dreams, the neighbor shoots Arthur with his rifle and then points at Larry and says to his son, "There's another Jew, son!" A painting depicts the biblical Abraham holding a knife to Isaac's chest. A lawyer keels over in a meeting with a heart attack.
Crude or Profane Language
About 20 f-words pepper the dialogue, most of them delivered by middle school boys. There are also at least a half-dozen s-words, four or five forceful abuses of Jesus' name and a handful of uses of "a‑‑."
Drug and Alcohol Content
The movie minors on marijuana. Larry gets high when he shares a joint with Mrs. Samsky. And she smokes more of it in Larry's dream. Danny talks of buying a "lid" from a neighbor boy. And we see him on several occasions—including just before his Bar Mitzvah—getting stoned with schoolmates.
Folks smoke tobacco as well, in the form of cigarettes and a pipe. When Sy comes over to talk with Larry, he brings a bottle of fine wine as a bribe of sorts.
Other Negative Elements
In a running gag, Arthur is constantly draining a sebaceous cyst on his neck. (We never actually see it, just his actions revolving around it.) Danny breaks into his teacher's desk looking for a confiscated radio. It's made clear that Arthur's been participating in illegal gambling.
Larry's neighbor's reaction to Asians, while understated, is rancidly racist.
Over the years, the Coen brothers, responsible for the likes of Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski and Fargo, have used satirical wit and a flair for quirky characters to paint dramatically twisted portraits of everything from golden age Hollywood writers to modern day hit men. Now they've turned the lens inward, toward their own experiences growing up. While not autobiographical in any specific sense, A Serious Man examines the directing/writing team's roots with a deconstructing look at a Midwestern Jewish family.
Strangely—as is often the case with the Coens—the film's tone is set with an opening scene from the 1800s. A Yiddish-speaking couple receive an ominous visit from what they perceive to be an evil entity. "God has cursed us," the woman intones before plunging an ice pick into their guest's chest.
And then we jump ahead to Larry and his troubles.
Is that first scene, then, a portent of suffering that's handed down from Larry's ancestors? Or just a suggestion that being God's chosen people has more curse than blessing about it? Or perhaps it's designed to set the stage for Larry's tale to thumb its nose at the very concept of spirituality. A sneering statement that life is simply random, that spiritual answers seem so wispy because … there are no answers.
Those are the kinds of thoughts and questions A Serious Man raises as it leaps into Larry's trials. He becomes something of a 1960s Job—that is if Job wrestled with plagues sent down from a heavenly hermit who didn't really care about any of us or perhaps never really existed at all.
As the end credits approach, Danny finishes his Bar Mitzvah and is ushered into the presence of an old and wizened rabbi to receive a blessing. This is the same rabbi Larry has tried to reach throughout the story for some word of reason, some sense of spiritual direction. So we hang on his every word as he speaks with Danny. Will he share with the boy what he's refused to tell the man? Will he point the way to paradise? Hardly. Instead of scriptural enlightenment, the old man imparts the lyrics from a Jefferson Airplane song and sends the young teen out with this pallid profundity: "Be a good boy."
The emperor truly has no clothes. But I'm not sure the emperor in this case is really the rabbi. It's more likely the Coens. Because amid all of their philosophic meanderings and high-minded imaginings, "be good" is about the best answer they can come up with.