Larry Gopnik: It sounds like you don't know anything! Why even tell me the story?
A Serious Man is a 2009 film conceived by The Coen Brothers, depicting a few crazy days in the life of a midwestern physics professor, Larry Gopnik. Info Dump a-go-go:Larry's wife Judith astounds him with her announcement she intends to divorce him in favor of the more distinguished widower Sy Ableman; son Danny, whose Bar Mizvah approaches, smokes weed while he pretends to study; whiny daughter Sarah sneaks money from his wallet to save up for a nose job so she can look less Jewish. At the college, his student Clive Park attempts to bribe him for a passing grade — and Mr. Park threatens to sue him for defamation should he go public. He is kicked out of his own house and forced to live in a crummy motel with his sickly and eccentric brother Arthur. Oh, and someone's been writing anonymous letters to his university warning them not to grant Larry tenure. Can things get any worse?Yes, Oh yes they can.
This film features examples of:
Adult Fear: More like an encyclopedia of Adult Fears.
"The teeth? I don't know. Signs from Hashem? I don't know. Helping others? Couldn't hurt."
Author Avatar: Rabbi Nachtner, given his habit of ending stories on an inconclusive note. Possibly the children, too, as the Coens grew up in 1960s Minnesota.
Asian and Nerdy/Education Papa: Both these Asian stereotypes are subverted; Clive, aiming for a scholarship, failed his physics exam because he didn't know it would have math and his father prefers to offer bribes to his teachers rather than to get his son to study harder.
Big "WHAT?!": Larry, three times in a row, upon learning that Sy Ableman has died in a car crash.
Larry: Well, the other students wouldn't like that, would they, if one student gets to retake the test till he gets a grade he likes?
Clive: Secret test. Hush-hush.
Deliberate Values Dissonance: The implied anti-semitism of the Gopnik neighbours is just a fact of life Larry has to deal with (though to be fair his neighbor seems willing to stand up for him... against a Korean). To his credit, when complaining about them to his (Jewish) neighbour Mrs. Samsky, Larry seems a bit uncomfortable when she makes her own prejudices clear.
Disproportionate Retribution: If you interpret the ending events as punishment, then Larry is stricken with a fatal illness for raising a student's grade, and Danny is going to be run down by a tornado for listening to music in class.
Dream Sequence: Larry has three: in one, Sy returns from the grave to harass him; in another, he and Arthur are killed by their neighbours. It turns into a Catapult Nightmare.
Eccentric Mentor: The third rabbi. And Rabbi Nauthner (the second rabbi) to a lesser extent.
Erotic Dream: Larry's apparent steamy scene with Mrs. Samsky never actually happens.
Femme Fatale: Mrs. Samsky seems to be one ... but really isn't.
From Bad to Worse: A heap of problems snowballs on Larry Gopnik; lawyers for divorce, lawyers for property claims, lawyers for his brother in law, a colleague who is cheating on his wife, blackmail... Just as Larry starts to see a little bit of light after accepting a bribe for much needed money, his doctor calls with news about X rays and his son might be about to get sucked up by an incoming tornado. It's unclear what is going to happen in the minutes after the movie ends, which is probably the point.
Gainax Ending/No Ending: Larry accepts the bribe and is immediately called by his doctor to discuss some findings during an examination. Meanwhile, a tornado has touched down outside Danny's school. The film ends before we find out what happens next to them. Good luck determining what it means.
Morton's Fork: A student who has failed his exam leaves an envelope of money in Larry's office, as a bribe to get a passing grade. When Larry discusses the matter with the student's father, he realises that he has three equally unpleasant options that fit in well with the previously explained theme of Schroedingers Cat.
Accept the bribe.
Give the money back to the student, in which case the father will sue Larry for slander (for accusing the student and his family of bribery).
Keep the money and fail the student anyway, in which case the father will report him for theft.
Only a Flesh Wound: The wife Dora at the beginning of the film takes this as a sign that the rabbi visiting them is actually a malevolent undead. But whether in response or from delayed reaction, he slowly begins to bleed...
Outdoor Bath Peeping: When he's on the roof to fix the antennae, Larry peeks at his neighbor, Mrs. Samsky sunbathing in the nude.
Pet the Dog: Sy Ableman loves toying with this trope. He stole Larry's wife and yet proceeds to be blatantly cordial about the situation to throw Larry off.
Protagonist-Centered Morality: Larry sees his neighbor as an anti-semitic borderline psychopath (it's never stated aloud, but that's the implication). His worst crime onscreen is wanting to build a boat shed and disagreeing with Larry about the property line. Moreover, when Mr. Park is threatening Larry, his neighbour walks over and asks if the man is bothering him, apparently ready to come to his aid. It's Larry who refuses the help.
Small Reference Pools: The two scenes of Larry lecturing what's presumably Quantum Mechanics feature him explaining Schrodinger's Cat and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
Soundtrack Dissonance: The melancholy soundtrack emphasizes the darker undertones of what is ostensibly a comedy. And after the ending, it's unlikely you'll ever hear "Somebody To Love" the same way again.
Despite all the bad things that happen to Larry, he gets tenure.
Also, Larry and his wife visibly seem a lot happier together when Danny completes his bar mitzvah, and one could argue that this event has reminded them of the value of staying together (his wife has, after all, emphasized the need to keep things stable for the children).
The Walrus Was Paul: Any attempt to analyze the film will reveal a tangle of mixed messages, incongruous scenes, and a generally incomprehensible mess. Given the subject matter of the film and the style of the creators, this is almost certainly intentional. Lampshaded to hell and back by The Second Rabbi. His story about The Goy's Teeth explicitly tells the audience that trying to decipher meaning and extract symbolism from this movie is a futile effort, and that many of the things we see were placed there for no other reason than to screw with your head if you think about them for too long. They don't have to mean anything, they're just there.
What Happened to the Mouse?: Most of the plot threads set up in the film end up unresolved. What was up with that opening sequence? Will Larry and his wife get a divorce? Were the charges brought up against Arthur true? What about his Mentaculus - is there something to it? Will Larry resolve his property dispute with his neighbor? Will he be able to settle things with the Columbia Record Club? How did the dentist's patient get those carvings on his teeth? And why does Larry's daughter keep washing her hair? This is almost certainly deliberately, given the nature of the plot.
The World Is Just Awesome: The youngest rabbi tries to get Larry to see the world this way. Unfortunately he becomes fixated on using a parking lot as his example.
Wham Line: "Oh, Sy Ableman died in a car crash". Especially funny in that the person delivering the line thinks of it wholly as an afterthought.
Oddly enough, there're bits of dialogue that subtly subverts this trope. For example, Larry's co-worker often delivers news of the tenure proceedings without really confirming anything, but the audience is made to understand that's confirmation of certain events.
Xanatos Gambit - Clive's and his father's plan against Larry is one. If Larry reports the bribe, he will be sued for defamation. If he pretends the bribe didn't happen but doesn't raise Clive's grade, he will be sued for taking money. Ultimately his only option is to take the bribe or risk losing everything.
Yiddish as a Second Language: Yiddish as a first language for the prologue. It's also a sign of the times for 1967 that most middle-aged American Jews in the film know a lot of Yiddish. Many of them are probably first-generation Americans.