The sublime brilliance of Ethan and Joel Coen's A Serious Man hinges on how seamlessly the brothers blend the film's absurdist comedic elements with its grave, even despairing ruminations on sin, mystery, and revelation. It's a film in which the broad silliness of a stoned bar mitzvah can co-exist comfortably alongside a devastatingly affecting moment of brotherly love. A Serious Man's spirit is distinctly comical, but the dense, perceptive script favors moments that are funny because they hurt, with the pain often resulting from an emotional mangling. Larry Gopnik's velvet steamrolling by his wife Judith and her creepy-avuncular paramour Sy at the ludicrously incongruous Ember's (not the forum for legalities) is hilarious in the way that a grand piano landing on Donald Duck is hilarious. Both contain a glimmer of self-satisfied relief: "Thank God I'm not so stupid as to let something like that happen to me!" Unlike most comedies, however, A Serious Man presents questions that are genuinely vexing, and shares with us pains that are profoundly felt. It is a story, contra our confidence that we are more assertive and discerning than Larry, about the universality of calamity and the philosophical and spiritual agonies that often flow from personal ruin. [Spoilers below.]
Most explications of the film's story have taken note of its similarities to the biblical story of Job, and, indeed, the film includes a few overt allusions to that tale (more on that later). However, in the original story, Job was an exceedingly prosperous and righteous man, and the momentum for Satan's wager with God was his cynical suspicion that a man would abandon the latter if deprived of the former. Larry Gopnik, as the Brothers themselves have pointed out, is neither especially prosperous nor especially righteous. His middle-class success, although it represents the sort of sweeping absorption into the majority culture that would have been unthinkable to the shtetl-dwellers in the film's prologue, is purely middle-of-the-road in the context of 1960s America. Meanwhile, Larry's faith is strictly of the "only-on-holidays" stripe, a cultural marker rather than a way of living. Prayer never crosses his mind, and he has to be prompted by a family friend to even seek out the temple's rabbis for advice when troubles start to swallow his life.
Like the characters in the film, we have no knowledge of what, if any, cosmic bets are driving Larry's travails. (There are no privileged scenes of gods playing chess as in Clash of the Titans, or of angelic exposition as in It's a Wonderful Life.) Larry's sheer ordinariness and the absence of any God's-eye view leaves us to wonder, as our hapless protagonist does, just what his misfortunes mean. This, of course, is the tension that powers the film, and A Serious Man is, in essence, the Brothers' theodicy piece. It confronts what theologians term the Problem of Evil: If God is all-good and all-powerful, then why do bad things happen? The dilemma would more accurately be described (with a Buddhist spin) as the Problem of Suffering, as it is concerned not only with malevolent acts, but also the panoply of Bad Stuff that can befall us, from root canals to tsunamis. Monotheistic theology generally forestalls a karmic rationale for misfortune: not every stubbed toe and dribble of bird shit on the car can be traced back to a particular sin. Larry's mantra--"I didn't do anything!"--is therefore somewhat misplaced. As his conversations with the rabbis make clear, the salient question is what, if anything, God is trying to communicate to him through his miseries.
Catholic priest Robert Barron points out in his video commentary on A Serious Man (hat tip: Jim Emerson) that the characters in the film dwell in a world where the existence of God and his involvement in humanity are accepted as foregone conclusions. Larry's quest is to discern the presumed meaning in his misfortunes; no one suggests to him that his misfortunes have no meaning and that God is not behind them. Put less delicately, no one remarks that shit just happens. The film is thus a piece about people of faith and how they confront adversity, although it is by no means a film solely for them. In this, A Serious Man reveals itself as a religious companion to No Country For Old Men. The latter film pulls a stunning fake-out in its third act, as what seemed like a pitch-perfect thriller centered on Llewellyn Moss abruptly diverges into a harrowing lament by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Through the lawman's despair, the film confronts the problem of how a world filled with unfathomable evil and terrible injustice can be navigated without God. A Serious Man is the religious reverse of this coin, focused instead on a man for whom faithlessness is not feasible (it's not even within the universe of possibilities presented to him, really). In contrast to No Country's absence of meaning--that film ultimately rejects Ed Tom's "signs and wonders" and Chigurh's destiny--A Serious Man assumes the significance of earthly events, although it is never clearly asserts whether the meaning of those events can be divined by mere humans.
I'm not religious, and I'm still struggling with why exactly A Serious Man had such a profound effect on me. I think it's because Larry's plight resonates as a truly universal experience, one that should be familiar to all viewers, whether devout, apostate, or indifferent. We've all had days (or weeks, or months, or years...) when it seems as though the universe is taking a colossal dump on us, when we feel like we're getting kicked while we're down. There's a natural impulse, whatever our beliefs, to ask "Why?" when misfortune lands with a thud on our heads. (Although not so much when positive things come along; curious, that.) Fundamentally, A Serious Man is about the search for answers. Not in the abstract manner of greybeard philosophers, but the raw need of someone who has been bloodied and battered by one calamity after another. Whether that search for answers is pointless, misguided, or underlain by erroneous assumptions, that doesn't detract from the film's potent evocation of the sensation of that all-too-common crisis state.
Still, my approach to A Serious Man is predominantly an irreligious one, and from such an angle I regard the film's recurring motif to be failure: the failure of Larry's beloved physics or his neglected faith to provide answers; the failure to accept that there may not be an answer; the failure to hear or heed messages; the failure to act to prevent calamities big and small. To my eye, the film possesses a palpable cynicism regarding the utility of that "deep well of tradition" so glowingly described by Larry's friend, as our poor schlemiel protagonist ultimately discovers that the rabbis (the ones who will even deign to see him) only answer his questions with airy quips and more questions. Most films portray religion as a character trait that signifies uprightness, sincerity, or, more rarely, bigotry. Few films are willing to call out the broader phenomenon of religion out as a big pile of nothing, sucking up its adherents' money and time in return for worthless bromides.
That said, the Coens obviously have a lot of nostalgic affection for Jewish traditions and sensibilities. Despite the film's flabbergasted stance towards the rabbis and the apparent uselessness of their advice, Father Barron is correct in that the Coens also include moments that seem to validate (or at least call back to) that advice. As hollow as Rabbi Scott's parking lot sentiments might be, it's undeniable that a "change in perspective" plays a significant role in the film at select points. It's evoked literally in Larry's rooftop aerial adjustments--an attempt, pointedly enough, to pick up an incoming message--which provides him with a glimpse into Mrs. Samsky's libertine world. Larry's and Danny's pot-smoking also represents a kind of chemical change in perspective. And in one of the film's most emotionally potent moments, Larry is gobsmacked with the realization that his brother regards him as a profoundly blessed man. (Was there an actor's moment in 2009 more devastating that Richard Kind's blubbering wail, "Hashem hasn't given me shit!"?) This isn't to say that Father Scott is "right"; his advice is so bland and obvious that Larry could just as easily have arrived at it himself. It's just that the Coens, in their inimitable way, are loathe to dismiss the words of any of their characters, no matter how repugnant or foolish. (Look at how easily the Dude picks up words and phrases from those around him in The Big Lebowski, whether they are friends or enemies, intellectuals or lackwits.)
The ambiguity regarding the rabbis--are they empty vessels or founts of wisdom?--of course reflects the film's emphatic preoccupation with mystery and uncertainty. Physicist Larry, who "understands the math," knows that we can't ever really know anything, but he has failed to internalize the lesson of Schrödinger's cat and apply it to his everyday reality. Most of us, like Clive, can wrap our heads around the alive/not-alive cat (sort of), but would quickly become lost in Larry's voluminous, arcane equations, which serve as his own secular kabbalah, only slightly less obscure than Arthur's Mentaculus. Larry, meanwhile, admits that he doesn't understand the cat's dual state, just as he can't accept that Clive both did and did not attempt to bribe him ("You can't have it both ways!"). Larry has been agitated by the mystery of his own misfortunes, and unlike Dr. Sussman, he can't just let go and get back to his life.
Larry might crave answers, but we repeatedly see that he is willfully deaf to messages. His secretary hands him messages from Sy and Columbia Records, but he disregards them until the consequences come home to roost. He seems to have had entire conversations with Judith that he barely recalls, and is only vaguely aware of the overwhelming signals that she has evidently been broadcasting for some time ("I begged you to see the rabbi!"). Even his television aerial is unable to pick up the one program that his son obsesses over, F-Troop. (That show, incidentally, featured the advice-dispensing Chief Wild Eagle, who, echoing the rabbis of the film, was full of vague Indian sayings that he rarely understood himself.) When Columbia Records finally track Larry down, he at first denies his identity, then hotly rejects the monthly selection, Santana's Abraxas. Knowing that "abraxas" is a Gnostic title for a god or other primeval entity renders Larry's vehement refusal all the more stinging: "I do not want Abraxas, I do not need Abraxas, and I will not listen to Abraxas."
This refusal to listen highlights Larry's most essential flaw: his lack of attention to his own life. At first glance, the film presents Larry as a pathetic victim, on whom a spate of terrible misfortunes are inflicted through no fault of his own. However, many aspects of Larry's situation stem from his own inaction and lack of assertiveness. He permits those around him to step all over him, and his feeble attempts to resist only render him all the more pathetic, a milquetoast who practically asks for others to shove him aside. Time and again, he is presented with opportunities to take command of his situation--with his wife, children, Arthur, Clive, Mr. Brandt, and particularly Sy--only to let such openings slip through his fingers. Larry's statement of blamelessness, "I didn't do anything!," becomes one of inaction, "I didn't do anything!" This shift in meaning is hinted at by Larry himself when he admits that he has not published or performed any research as a professor. And, as the Columbia Records fellow explains, one can, in fact, incur debts by doing nothing. The infernal dybbuk is invited into one's house by a lapse in the duty to sit shiva for a departed soul; similarly, Larry invites all kinds of terrible things into his life by his sins of omission, by his negligence towards the integrity of his own life.
The final scenes of the film invite an inevitable question: Is the phone call from Larry's doctor, intruding at the very moment that he changes Clive's grade, a message from God, a indirect punishment for his trespass. Is the tornado bearing down on Danny an extension of God's retribution, a cruel instance of the sins of the father being visited upon the son? Despite the link the Coens establish between Larry's actions and his (presumably) dire medical news, I think the Brothers are playing with us a bit. Elsewhere, the film makes it clear that the juxtaposition of an action and an event has no particular significance (or perhaps simply a significance that is forever beyond our ken). Again, Larry does not live in a karmic universe. We should draw no inferences between his decision to accept Clive's bribe and the phone call / tornado. (One could even argue that Larry is indeed "helping others" as Rabbi Nachtner urged, in that he is helping Clive avoid the loss of his scholarship, a probable expulsion, and deep family shame.) The arrival of a grim prognosis, just after Larry's happiest day in weeks, is not a divine sign, but merely an unfortunately timed example of the cosmos' random indifference. Cancer doesn't care whether we're having a good day or a bad day. It simply is. Like a tornado, it is one the "evils" that theodicy must account for in this world. As Danny stands outside his school, his determination to do the right thing and pay his debt to Fagle (and thereby avoid a beating, not incidentally) fades at the sight of nature's fury. Moral duty diminishes in the face of such uncanny chaos, and we are reminded of God speaking to Job from within a whirlwind. If God truly exists in the world of A Serious Man, he is speaking to Danny through the tornado. It is not a direct communication, but a stark demonstration that Danny's preoccupations--money, weed, television, his radio, even the Torah--are paltry in the grand scheme of things. For all the harrowing despair roiling in those final images, it in fact represents a mellowing of the film's indictments. Larry is responsible for much of his plight, but what we can control in our lives is far outweighed by that which we cannot control. That fearsome funnel cloud epitomizes the universe at its most capricious and destructive, and highlights the fragile character of human life. The threat of the tornado urges us, paradoxically enough, to relax. It's out of our hands.