When the Truth is Found: The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man
In the final moments of the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) finally gives in to his moral dilemma and accepts a bribe from one of his students, changing his failing grade to a C (minus). The second he puts down his pencil, the phone rings — it’s his doctor, asking him to come in to talk about the results of Gopnik’s X-rays. It’s an off-putting exchange, with Stuhlbarg selling Gopnik’s finalized anguish, the weight of his troubles finally slamming down on him. The entire film has been his struggle with finding meaning in the meaningless, trying to be a ‘serious man’, a good man up against the perils of the universe. Yet, in the end, he succumbs to this folly and his fate is seemingly secured.
Or is it?
A Serious Man begins with a fable, set sometime in the 19th-century. A Jewish family is visited by a man who may or may not be a possessed by a demonic spirit. The husband believes the man in question is a mortal man, while the wife, certain this man died years ago, does the only sensible thing and drives a pick into the supposed-dybbuk’s heart. “All is lost,” the husband says as this stabbed man (or demon) gets up and walks out. “Nonsense… Good riddance to evil,” the wife responds, slamming the door. In this cold open, the Coen brothers once again define their career-long intentions: life is a mystery, and it would be unwise to think about it too much.
The modern ‘mystery box’ approach to storytelling has been attributed to J.J. Abrams, but the Coens have been defining it for decades now — in Barton Fink, the high-strung hero carries around a literal mystery box, and the hellish final moments of the film have been analyzed to no end. Abrams and the Coens each revel in the mystery, knowing just how to tantalize their respective audiences. Abrams may be better at building interest outside the actual film or TV show (Cloverfield, Lost), but the big difference is that while Abrams eventually succumbs and lets the audience in on the mystery behind the curtain, the Coens rarely allow its audience the catharsis.
The unresolved is the resolution for the Coens. The buried cash stash in Fargo, the UFO in The Man Who Wasn’t There, the dream at the end of No Country for Old Men — we don’t get the conclusion we think we’re entitled to, which makes the Coens masters of the unexpected.
After winning Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture for No Country for Old Men, they followed up that acclaim with Burn After Reading, a spy film filled with a stable of bumbling, trademark Coen characters. Bodies pile up and in its final moments, two CIA agent assigned to the case have this back and forth:
“What did we learn, Palmer?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“I don’t fucking know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.”
“I’m fucked if I know what we did.”
“Yes, sir, it’s uh, hard to say.”
For anyone confounded by the cold, apprupt, and the unsatisfying-to-some ending of No Country for Old Men, this felt like a clear response. Lest we forget, it’s about the long winding road and not the destination. And yet, there’s a lesson to be learned… What exactly? Well...
This leads us to A Serious Man, which might be the Coens’ most Coen film to date, while also being their most personal. Set in 1967, the film is set in a neighborhood matching the suburbs in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, where the Coens grew up. The Gopnik family, one would assume, lives the standard Jewish American life the filmmakers lived through themselves. The family drama at play has Larry and his wife, Judith, on the brink of divorce, while Larry’s son, Danny, is about to have his Bar Mitzvah. Larry sees his life slowly unraveling around him — his marriage is dissolving, he has to care for his brother who has his own demons, his tenureship as a physics professor is being jeopardized by outside forces, and his neighbor is encroaching on the Gopnik property line. Any one of these problems would be easy to handle on their own, but they all mount at once. Larry grasps his briefcase tighter and tighter with each reveal of bad news, and a constant state of anxiety runs through the film — A Serious Man isn’t a horror film, but is as unsettling as one.
While Larry tries to find meaning in it all, his son is entering adulthood like any 13-year-old in the ‘60s would: by just getting high all the time. Danny’s biggest problems are memorizing the Torah to read at his Bar Mitzvah, getting his radio confiscated in class, owing money to the local school bully/drug dealer, and the poor TV reception during episodes of F Troop. The two Gopniks are at two very different points in their life, yet their stories are perfect parallels. Larry is trying to find meaning by way of his faith, while Danny ends up finding meaning when he wasn’t even looking.
Larry visits with two rabbis — he tries to visit a third, the wise old Rabbi Marshak, but is turned away. From each rabbi, he gets frustrating adages: “Just look at that parking lot…” the first rabbi says, while the second details a long and winding story about a hidden message in a goy’s mouth found by a Jewish dentist. Both leave Larry unsatisfied. Science proves frustrating, too — he starts to dream about lecturing long on a gigantic formula that proves uncertainty, and he’s frightened to discover his brother working on a nonsensical roadmap to the universe called “The Mentaculus”. They’re all square blocks in the round hole of his soul. He even inches toward an affair with his neighbor, getting high in the process, but even that has an unsatisfying conclusion.
Danny’s Bar Mitzvah provides a sense of closure for both Danny and Larry, though. Before the ceremony, Larry realizes his troubles don’t seem as bad after glimpsing into his brother’s life. Perspective shifts Larry’s worldview, and he’s more at peace once he sees his son perform the Torah. Danny then makes good on something his father had wanted to do and meets with Rabbi Marshak, as is tradition. The rabbi presents to Danny the radio that was confiscated from the boy, while also quoting Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”, the same song Danny was listening to when his teacher took the radio. It’s full circle closure, rarely seen in a Coen brothers film. How did the rabbi get a hold of the radio and how did he know to quote that particular song? It doesn’t matter. Danny’s problems are solved in one fell swoop; and the rabbi leaves him with important advice:
“Be a good boy.”
Larry and Danny seem to be in the clear; in their own separate way they’ve ‘accepted the mystery’ — a suggestion made earlier by the father of the student who is trying to bribe Larry. But it all takes a dark turn. Larry accepts the bribe and changes his students grade, while Danny doesn’t really get the whole ‘good boy’ concept and tries to give the bully the money he owes him by stealing it from his sister (who stole it from her father). Larry’s gets the dreaded phone call from his doctor, while Danny’s school is evacuated due to a tornado warning. Before the students and staff can get into the shelter, Danny sees the tornado rushing towards him.
That’s all we’re left with.
During a lecture early in the film, Larry describes to his students the concept of Schrödinger's cat. Like that cat, we don’t know if Larry or Danny make it out alive or not; but really, it doesn’t look good. Could a higher power have saved each of them if they in fact took that advice of being ‘good boys’? In trying to find meaning in A Serious Man, it might be the most satisfying conclusion in looking at this fable told by two of our greatest living filmmakers. The Coens have created dozens of characters whose follies ultimately bring them down due to blackmail, theft, and murder. A Serious Man asks, what if the mysteries of the universe are solved within — a ‘serious man’ has a better shot at making it out than someone who’s not. Be a good boy and the mystery is irrelevant.
Or is it?