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Film / A Serious Man

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Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.

Rabbi Nachtner: We can't know everything.
Larry Gopnik: It sounds like you don't know anything! Why even tell me the story?

A Serious Man is a 2009 dark comedy-drama film conceived by The Coen Brothers, depicting a few crazy days in the life of a midwestern physics professor, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Larry's wife Judith astounds him by declaring she intends to divorce him in favor of the more distinguished widower Sy Ableman; their son Danny, whose Bar Mitzvah approaches, smokes weed while he pretends to study; and their whiny daughter Sarah sneaks money from Larry's wallet to save up for a nose job. At the college where Larry teaches, his student Clive Park attempts to bribe him for a passing grade — and Mr. Park threatens to sue him for defamation should he report it. 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, they can.

This film features examples of:

  • The '60s: The story is set in 1967, although both of the main selections mentioned by the Columbia Record Club employee were released in 1970.
  • Aesop Collateral Damage: Since it is based on the Book of Job, this was bound to happen... although one doesn't really know what the aesop is.
  • The Anti-Nihilist: The Second Rabbi:
    "The teeth? I don't know. Signs from Hashem? I don't know. Helping others? Couldn't hurt."
  • Apophenia Plot: Trying to make sense of the many events seemingly conspiring to ruin his life- including a student threatening to sue him, his wife leaving him, a neighbor who may be trying to seduce him, and someone sending his institution covert letters trying to deny him tenure- Larry stumbles upon a story about a hidden message in a man's teeth, and it gets him believing it all may be God trying to send him a message.
  • Arc Words: "I didn't do anything."
  • Asian and Nerdy: Averted. 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 get his son to study harder.
  • 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.
  • Bad Liar: Larry is repeatedly assured, in a completely weak and unconvincing way, that the anonymous letters against him will not affect his chances at tenure, leading the audience to believe that Larry's opportunity has been all but killed. Subverted when they really don't affect anything, and Larry is implied to receive his tenure.
  • Big "WHAT?!": Larry, three times in a row, upon learning that Sy Ableman has died in a car crash.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Tons of it for Hebrew speakers. Also some Yiddish.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Although he is almost absurdly courteous to Larry's face, it is heavily implied that Sy Ableman was the one writing the anonymous and defamatory letters to the tenure board about Larry.
  • Black Comedy: The film follows a man for whom all aspects of life are going From Bad to Worse, as he tries desperately to understand what he's being punished for or what his suffering means. Despite the grim premise, the film has many colourful characters and makes fun of the seeming absurdity and futility of the human condition. It says a lot that one of the big, unexpected laughs of the movie is a background character suffering a sudden heart attack.
  • Blackmail: Clive and his father attempt to blackmail Larry into giving the former a passing grade. Larry finally relents at the film's end and is immediately punished for it, showing just what kind of values are at work here.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: The film abruptly ends with Larry getting called by his doctor about what could be an urgent terminal illness, and his son and fellow students facing an incoming tornado.
  • Butt-Monkey: The plot entirely centers on Larry getting burned time and time again.
  • Call-Back: Danny's transistor radio. Also, Larry's doctor's appointment.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': No sooner does Larry fold to the Parks' coercion than does he receieve a phone call indicating he may have a serious health condition.
  • Catchphrase: Larry's "I haven't done anything!", showing his desperation in the face of having his traditional "actions and consequences" world view challenged. He simply can't understand why awful things keep happening to him unprovoked.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Arthur, Larry's eccentric brother who devotes his life to drawing an idiosyncratic and detailed "probability map of the universe."
  • Comically Missing the Point: When Clive suggests he should be allowed to retake his physics test.
    Larry: Well, the other students wouldn't like that, would they, if one student gets to retake the test 'til he gets a grade he likes?
    Clive: Secret test. Hush-hush.
  • Cosmic Horror Story: Of the mundane, philosophical variety. Strange and horrible things will happen to you with no rhyme or reason and if there is a God, he is completely unknowable and happy to ruin your life.
  • Cosmic Plaything: Poor Larry can’t catch a break. He has to look after his socially inept brother, his wife wants to leave him, his kids are both self-centered beyond belief and he is forced to deal with a student bribing and blackmailing him for a passing grade. Then, when the film is about to end, he is told in so many words that he may be deathly ill. The story hints that all of these tribulations may be God testing Larry, but it’s also possible that God is just having a laugh at his expense.
  • Cringe Comedy: The whole film runs on second-hand embarrassment for Larry, who is continually put into toe-crunchingly awkward situations.
  • Crisis of Faith: Larry goes through one as terrible things pile up in his life, leading him to see multiple rabbis in an attempt to figure out what's going on.
  • Cryptic Conversation: All three rabbis that Larry visits are unhelpful in very different ways, while at the same time more or less reiterating the same point, which Larry neither wants nor is equipped to hear. Junior Rabbi Ginsler admits his own inexperience, recommending Nachtner or Marshak instead, but stresses that Larry keep his faith in the face of adversity. Nachtner tells a very long, rambling anecdote that Larry doesn't quite understand and sees as pointless, but has a similar moral: obsessing over Talmudic mysticism doesn't really help you understand the will or motives of God in the end, so focus on your life and family and remain a good, observant Jew. Marshak, the oldest and most learned of the three, is so esoteric that he doesn't even rely on the scriptures and just quotes Jefferson Airplane lyrics — a waste of time for Larry, who's tried his hardest to book an appointment, but also one of the most basic morals of all: you want, and need, and better find, somebody to love. The common ground between them all is that none of them have an answer to the questions Larry is asking, because there IS no earthly answer they can know or provide.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The perceived anti-semitism of the Gopniks' neighbours is just a fact of life Larry has to deal with. To his credit, when complaining about them to his neighbour Mrs. Samsky, who is herself Jewish, Larry seems a bit uncomfortable when she makes her own prejudices clear.
    Goys, aren't they?
  • Deus Angst Machina: All of Larry's misfortunes occur completely out of the blue, with nothing given away as to why he's suffering as much as he is.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: If one interprets the film's ending events as punishments upon the Gopnik men, then Larry might be stricken with a fatal illness for raising a student's grade, and Danny might 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, Marshak, is a relic of a man who keeps a room of oddities and gives advice in unconventional forms. The second rabbi, Nauthner, qualifies to a lesser extent with his winding story about a man's teeth.
  • Erotic Dream: Larry's apparent steamy scene with Mrs. Samsky never actually happens.
  • Extreme Doormat: Larry takes way too much abuse over the course of this movie, yet he seems to passively accept the bulk of it. Even his talks with community rabbis are ultimately attempts to get someone else to solve his problems for him.
  • Everybody Hates Mathematics: The Chinese exchange student argues that he understands the physics thought experiments, like Schrodinger's cat, so that should be enough to pass the class even if he can't grasp the math behind them. Larry insists that the physics is the math.
  • Fake-Out Opening: The opening scene displays a Jewish couple in the distant past and their experience with a rabbi who may be a dybbuk. However, the movie then moves on to the 1960s United States with Larry for the remainder of the film's runtime.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Sy Ableman puts on the veneer of a kind, fatherly figure who swears up and down that he only wants the best for Larry...all while he's in the process of stealing Larry's wife and forcing him out of his own home. To say nothing of the fact that he has apparently been trying to sabotage Larry's career as well.
  • Forced Out of the Closet: Implied with Arthur, who gets hit with charges of sexual solicitation and sodomy midway through the film- charges used throughout the 20th century to criminalize gay people by targeting techniques used in Gay Cruising.
  • From Bad to Worse: A heap of problems buries Larry Gopnik deeper and deeper as the film rolls on: 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 ominous news about his X-rays, and his son comes face to face with an oncoming tornado. It's unclear what is going to happen in the minutes after the movie ends, which is likely deliberate.
  • God Is Evil: Or at least appears that way as a result of being completely incomprehensible. Alternately, He is just, expecting that humankind only "be good," but is harsh to Old Testament levels against even seemingly inconsequential sins. Or maybe he is just working in mysterious ways. The short term format of the film means that the consequences of our characters actions are left ambiguous- and that is assuming that God exists/is involved in the plot at all.
  • Hope Spot: Sy Ableman's death does solve a few problems for Larry, but then he has to pay for Sy's funeral. Likewise at the end of the film, Danny's bar mitzvah has been (sort of) a success and Larry seems to be back on track for tenure, but then he receives an ominous phone call from his doctor after accepting a bribe and Danny's school is threatened by a tornado. Then the movie ends.
  • Hunting the Most Dangerous Game: In a nightmare Larry has, his neighbor and the neighbor's son are hunting for Jews, and shoot Arthur and Larry.
  • Hypocrite: At one point Judith assumes Larry does not want to discuss their marital issues because the children are present, and indignantly shoots down his concern. Shortly afterward, she insists Larry move out of their house because she didn't want to "put the kids in the middle of [their marital problems]".
  • Inelegant Blubbering: Judith, after Sy is killed.
  • In Mysterious Ways: Invoked by Rabbi Natchner.
    Rabbi Nachtner: These questions that are bothering you, Larry - maybe they're like a toothache. We feel them for a while, then they go away.
    Larry: I don't want it to just go away! I want an answer!
    Rabbi Nachtner: Sure! We all want the answer! But Hashem doesn't owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn't owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.
    Larry: Why does he make us feel the questions if he's not gonna give us any answers?
    Rabbi Nachtner: He hasn't told me.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Clive's father insists that his son didn't try to bribe Larry, and any attempts to claim he did- which would include attempts to return the money- will result in a lawsuit for slander. He also warns Larry that, if he keeps the money but doesn't change Clive's grade, he'll be sued for theft. When Larry points out that those threats contradict each other, he's told to "accept the mystery".
  • Kafka Komedy: Larry is a well-meaning, nebbish guy put through hell for laughs.
  • Karma Houdini: Clive and his father get away with their scheme to force Larry to change Clive's grade, although Larry does give Clive the lowest possible passing grade
  • Laser-Guided Karma:
    • Sy is killed in a random car crash. Somewhat mitigated by Larry being strong-armed into footing the funeral bill.
    • Right after Larry accepts a bribe, his doctor calls him; it is strongly implied that Larry is very ill.
  • Leitmotif: "Somebody to Love" by Jefferson Airplane.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The whole film to an extent but especially the opening scene. Is Mr. Groshkover really a dybbuk? Him laughing off being stabbed in the chest with an ice pick would seem to suggest so, but no definitive answer is given.
    • Likewise, Rabbi Nachtner's story about the goy's teeth. It's not impossible that a random non-Jewish man would have a set of Hebrew characters etched into his teeth, just highly improbable. That the numerical value of the characters turns out to be the phone number of a supermarket only raises more questions.
  • Meaningful Name: "Gopnik", Larry's surname, is a Slavic slang expression for a Lower-Class Lout, which doesn't necessarily describe Larry's personality but does allude to his role in the film as a financially-challenged loser.
    • On the flipside, there's Sy "Ableman", The Ace who seems to be a better man than Larry in nearly every way.
  • 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 film's previously explained theme of Schrödinger's Cat:
    • If Larry tries to return the money, he'll be sued for slander.
    • If Larry keeps the money but doesn't change the grade, he'll be accused of theft.
    • If Larry changes the grade, he'll be guilty of academic misconduct.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Mrs. Samsky, sunbathing in the nude.
  • Mythology Gag: The North Dakota, a disreputable motel, may be a reference to the Coen Brothers' most critically acclaimed film, Fargo (1996).
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The trailer spoils that Larry never gets to meet the old rabbi.
  • No Ending: Larry accepts the Parks' 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 to them next. Good luck determining what it means.
  • Not His Sled: If one reads this as a retelling of the Book of Job- Larry forsakes his piety and dies of cancer.
  • 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...
  • Our Zombies Are Different: The opening scene shows us a Jewish/Yiddish parable in which a married couple host an old man who is actually a dybbuk in disguise.note  The dybbuk shown doesn’t physically appear supernatural or undead in the least, even bleeding after he is stabbed in the chest, though what is unusual is how he appears to shrug off the wound as if nothing happened. Realizing he’s not wanted, he leaves without further incident; pretty amicable for a zombie-demon.
  • Outdoor Bath Peeping: While on his roof to fix the antennae, Larry peeks at his neighbor Mrs. Samsky, who is basking in the sun sans clothes.
  • 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. Subverted when he turns out to be the one sending nasty letters to Larry's tenure committee, or so it is implied.
  • Proof Dare: Larry's student Clive Park, at risk of failing his class, leaves Larry a cash bribe for a passing grade. However, when Larry tries to return the money, Clive's father tells him that accusing Clive of bribery is defamation, and that he'll sue if Larry pursues the claim. It's obvious to both men that Clive did it, but Larry can't necessarily prove it.
  • Property Line: Larry is in a low-simmering dispute with his neighbor over their property line.
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: Larry seems to view his neighbor as an anti-semitic borderline psychopath, though his worst crime on-screen is wanting to build a boat shed and disagreeing with Larry about the property line. Moreover, when Mr. Park is threatening Larry, this same neighbour walks over and asks Larry if Mr. Park is bothering him, apparently ready to come to his aid. It's Larry who refuses the help.
  • Random Events Plot: The plot is basically this: a bunch of unrelated awful things happen to Larry, seemingly for no reason.
  • Running Gag:
    • Jews going "Jesus Christ!"
    • "Be out in a minute!"
    • "Fucker."
    • "Sy Ableman?"
    • "She wants a gett." "A what?"
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story:
    • The Tale of the Goy's Teeth, which has no resolution. When pressed for a resolution, the teller casually dismisses it. The point of the story was that sometimes things just happen for no reason, and we have to accept that.
    • The film itself has No Ending and no resolution on any of its plot threads.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Larry watching his neighbour sunbathing topless is reminiscent of David seeing Bathsheba.
    • The overarching story itself has been compared to the Book of Job.
    • If you're fast enough to catch it, apparently Larry's wife is using Tuchman Marsh, aka. the law firm briefly mentioned in the Coens' previous film, Burn After Reading.
    • Larry's son is an ardent fan of F Troop.
  • Sizable Semitic Nose: Larry protests the fact that his daughter Sarah is saving up to get a nose job, which is implied to be an attempt at covering up her Jewish heritage.
  • Small Reference Pools: The two scenes of Larry teaching what is 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.
  • A Storm Is Coming: A brewing tornado, concretely at the end of the film.
  • Throw the Dog a Bone:
    • Despite all the bad things that happen to Larry, he is implied to get his 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 their children.
  • Title Drop: At Sy's funeral, and also when Larry tries to get an appointment with the third rabbi.
  • Trauma Conga Line: Larry goes through every manner of misfortune from the first moment of the film's main plot to the last, from his wife's affair to blackmail from one of his students to somebody attempting a sabotage of his chances at getting tenure.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: "I don't want Santana's Abraxas! I don't need Santana's Abraxas! I'm not going to listen to Santana's Abraxas!"
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • "[Sy] wrote letters to your tenure committee". This suggests that Clive was a red herring the whole time, having nothing to do with the incriminating letters.
    • Oddly enough, there are bits of dialogue that subtly subvert 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.
  • 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.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: In Larry's dream, he writes the equation for the uncertainty of p incorrectly. The equation should be: <p^2> - <p>^2, but Larry mistakenly writes <p^2> - <p^2>, which would equal an uncertainty of zero. Curiously, though, in a later shot the equation has been corrected.
  • 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.