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Film / A Serious Man

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We're going to be fine...

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 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 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:

  • 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."
  • 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 to 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 students' letters against him will not affect his chances at tenure, leading the audience to believe that they've killed his opportunity. Subverted when they really don't affect anything, and he receives tenure.
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  • 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 is about a man for whom things are going from bad to worse in all aspects of his life, who's trying to understand what he's being punished for or what any of this means, but gets no answer. Despite the grim premise, the film has all kinds of wacky 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 randomly having a heart attack.
  • Blackmail: Clive and his father. Larry finally relents, and is immediately punished, showing 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.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Larry's daughter, Sarah.
  • Butt-Monkey: The plot entirely centers on Larry getting frustrated.
  • Call-Back: Danny's transistor radio. Also, Larry's doctor's appointment.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': No sooner does Larry accept the bribe then he gets a call stating he might 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" worldview challenged. He simply can't understand why things keep happening to him unprovoked.
  • Comically Missing the Point: When Clive suggests he should retake the test.
    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.
  • 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 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 having a laugh at his expense.
  • Crisis of Faith: Larry goes through one as more things pile up in his life, seeing multiple rabbis in an attempt to figure out what's going on.
  • 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.
    Goys, aren't they?
  • Disproportionate Retribution: If you interpret the ending events as punishment, 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. And Rabbi Nauthner (the second rabbi) to a lesser extent.
  • 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 just seems to passively accept it. Even his attempts to talk to the rabbis are trying to get someone else to help solve his problems for him.
  • 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 1960s America with Larry for the rest of the running time.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • Hollywood Heart Attack: An Averted Trope. A minor character's heart attack consists of him making a pained face and collapsing.
  • Hunting the Most Dangerous Game: In a nightmare Larry has, his neighbor and the neigbor's son are hunting for Jews, and shoot Arthur and Larry.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Sy Abelman, or so it's implied.
  • 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 Schrödinger's Cat: (1) accept the bribe, (2) 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), or (3) keep the money and fail the student anyway, in which case the father will report him for theft.
  • MST3K Mantra: The film! Sometimes you won't be able to find an answer, don't make yourself miserable trying to figure out everything.
  • Mushroom Samba: Danny's bar mitzvah.
  • 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 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.
  • Not His Sled: If you read this as a retelling of the Book of Job - he 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. In Jewish mythology, a dybbuk is a malicious spirit stemming from the disembodied soul of a dead person; something of a cross between a zombie and a demonic possession. The dybbuk we are shown doesn’t physically appear supernatural in the least (he even bleeds after he is stabbed). The only noteworthy supernatural trait present is that he appears to be impervious to physical attacks, shrugging off a stab to the chest as if nothing happened. Realizing he’s not wanted, he leaves without further incident; pretty amicable for a zombie demon.
  • 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.
  • Property Line: Larry is in a low-simmering dispute with his neighbor over their property line.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Spiritual Successor: to Barton Fink, another movie about an ordinary shmoe who suffers a parade of events ranging from unfortunate to terrifying for no discernible reason.
  • A Storm Is Coming: A tornado concretely at the end of the film.
  • Throw the Dog a Bone:
    • 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).
  • Title Drop: At Sy's funeral, and also when Larry tries to get an appointment with the third rabbi.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.


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