Both Something and Nothing: An essay on A Serious Man (2009)

New Classic: The Coen Brothers' 'A Serious Man' | IndieWire

(Distributed by Focus Features; Image Copied from IndieWire December 10, 2020)

Release Date: October 2, 2009
Runtime: 1hr 46m
Director: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

“Help me.”

“I didn’t do, ANYTHING!”

“When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies, don’t you want somebody to love?”

A Serious Man is a tragicomedy set in 1960s Minnesota, shortly before the Summer of Love, and retells the Book of Job through the eyes of the Coen Brothers in their style as a dark comedy with seemingly no apparent answers. Larry Gopnik, a physics professor, faces several challenges to his own status quo for seemingly no reason whatsoever, as if it’s a curse or God testing his faith.

His wife, Judith, is wanting a get so she can marry Sy Ableman; his son Danny is slacking on his studies for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah while owing a classmate money for marijuana; his daughter, Sarah, wants money for a nosejob; and his brother Arthur is wanting on several damning charges, feeling that God has deserted him his entire life. And what has Larry done to deserve any of this? In his eyes, nothing!

One of the recurring themes among many is the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment: is the cat alive or dead? The mathematics can show the cat is both alive and dead, yet the mathematics cannot make certain the path Larry’s life is intended to take. Sy Ableman consoles Larry, suggesting the best course of action for him while processing his divorce is for Larry to stay at the Jolly Roger Motel with Arthur. In a later scene, Sy dies in a series of car accidents involving Larry, though separate cars. At his funeral, Sy is hailed as a serious man, and continues to haunt Larry through his dreams, while Judith grieves with the sudden realization that her happiness is on standby. In that case, Sy can be both alive and dead.

Larry’s troubles around him are totally out-of-control to his eyes, unsure how to respond to anything. He frequently pleads to others that he hasn’t done anything, including over the phone with the Columbia Record company who says he owes money to him thanks to a subscription that wasn’t cancelled or paid for since Danny had signed up for it. “I haven’t done anything!” Larry pleads, while the company tells him that’s exactly his problem. He did nothing, which inaction under ignorance is still erring on the side of guilt according to them. In that sense, has he done anything at all to prevent his troubles with his wife and children, or has he done nothing? Maybe it’s a bit of both, he’s done some, other times nothing.

In addition to Larry’s financial and near-ruin of his marriage, he is left with uncertainty as to how his employer’s tenure committee will decide on whether or not to grant tenure to him, thanks to someone writing allegations against him for past actions, which Larry is being told not to worry about it. He does anyway, because the uncertainty has been introduced, and he believes it’s related to his pending action on accepting or rejecting a bribe from a Korean student about to fail his class. There’s only so many options on what to do with the bribe, when the father of the student is willing to file a defamation suit against Larry if he reports that the bribe came from the student. The option, an unwittingly favorite by Larry, is at the moment, nothing.

The choice of nothing bears a heavy weight on him, as his finances have been emptied by his wife earlier in the movie while he was staying at the Jolly Roger, and he is trying to pay for a lawyer to help with Arthur’s case, now charged with solicitation and sodomy. In his dreams, he considers giving the money to Arthur just so he can escape, when in reality he realizes that it likely is not a sensible option. However, everything begins to go up for him. His son does his Bar Mitzvah gracefully, and he receives a strong hint that he will be granted tenure after all. Upon this, he decides to take upon the bribe for his brother’s lawyer, and soon after is giving a haunting phone call from the doctor at the beginning of the movie, telling him it’s best that he comes in person to discuss his latest X-Ray results. Here, it seems that as soon as Larry accepts the bribe, he has ultimately failed the test, when for once doing nothing may have actually proven his faith in God.

But can we even be certain of that? The math seems to rule with uncertainty. Perhaps he was already dying and the phone call is merely a coincidence. And do we know if he’s dying? The doctor’s call seems to have a tone of “it’s urgent, you’d better come in so we can discuss what happens next.” Yet it isn’t certain. Here we are with Schrödinger’s Larry, he can both be alive and dead, regardless of whether he accepted the bribe.

Like many Coen Brothers movies, you can almost earn a dissertation by analyzing several themes or recurring elements from each one. In this movie, every major point seems to have no bearing on the actual story. A Serious Man opens up with a scene set in 19th century Russia, where a man believed to be dead randomly shows up to someone’s house. Believing him to be a dybbuk, the wife of the man helped by this supposedly dead person stabs him to free the house of this curse. As the alive/dead man walks outside, we’re left uncertain as to whether he was a dybbuk, and where he disappeared to in the snow. Who is this man? Is he somehow related to the Gopnik family and the curse has been passed on through hereditary inheritance? Why is this never called back to in a later scene? None of those questions are answered directly, but are subtly called back to in later scenes particularly with the recurring Schrödinger’s cat theme.

One particular scene is when Larry is speaking with the Second Rabbi, where he tells a parable of a dentist who found the words “help me” inscribed in Hebrew on the back of a patient’s teeth. The dentist tries and tries to understand the meaning of it. The parable simply ends on that note, with Larry unsure why the rabbi would bother telling him that story if there’s not really an ending to it. It’s similar to how A Serious Man ends. After the phone call from the doctor regarding Larry’s x-ray results, the audience is left with the same uncertainty the protagonist is, and a tornado is approaching Danny’s school while they’re having trouble unlocking the severe weather shelter outside. We don’t see the results of the x-ray, and we don’t see Danny take cover with the seemingly-imminent danger just several thousand feet ahead. Once again, they’re left alive and dead with however we interpret the ending.

These points of nothingness remind me well of another Coen Brothers movie, the sleeper-hit-becoming-cult film The Big Lebowski (1998). Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski is essentially an outcast from society, hanging out with the same two friends at the bowling alley, where life outside of that and his home really don’t matter that much to him. The only disturbance in the status quo that occurs is when The Dude is visited by a couple of men meaning to intimidate the real, big Jeffrey Lebowski, where one of the men pees on The Dude’s rug. The rest of the movie involves The Dude getting involved in a convoluted plot between Jeffrey Lebowski, his estranged wife Bunny, and nihilists who want money. The Dude simply wants a rug to replace his ruined one, as it did tie the room together. All he wants to do is nothing.

With Larry Gopnik in a state where he has everything, but is seemingly losing all of it due to him taking no action against threat to his desire to be a serious man, he’s on the opposite spectrum of The Dude. He feels that by doing nothing, he deserves nothing of what’s coming to him but believes that if he continues to do nothing, things will eventually get better for him. The Dude does nothing unless it shakes his ability to continuing doing nothing, a simple desire since he has so little to lose to begin with.

If luck may have it, A Serious Man deserves a similar status to The Big Lebowski. Neither movie were hits when they came out, but over time there are several pieces of philosophy that can be looked at through each scene, each piece of dialogue, and even material objects. At the same time, the Coen Brothers don’t necessarily state what their movies mean. They come out with a production, and leave the audience to decide what it means. Maybe both movies are modern parables. Maybe they’re totally about nothing, which may be something, but may actually be nothing at all. Because there’s rarely a consensus on what the movies mean, they’re both something and nothing.