A Serious Man
It is 1967, and Larry Gopnik's got problems. His wife Judith is leaving him for Sy Ableman, a maddeningly self-assured family friend with an impossibly mellifluous voice. His brother Arthur is living with him, spending most of his time scribbling in a notebook and suctioning the sebaceous cyst on his neck. His children are filching money from him: Sarah for a nose job, and Danny for pot and records. A student is either bribing or threatening him over a failing grade. One of his neighbors is encroaching on his property line; the other, Bathsheba-like, is sunbathing naked. And the pesky guy from the record-of-the-month club won't stop calling, insisting Larry pay up on an account he doesn't remember opening.
Until last week, Larry's life was straightforward, comfortable, even pleasant. He's in good health and up for tenure at the Midwestern university at which he teaches physics. His children attend school, more or less. The Gopniks are upstanding members of their local Jewish committee. Danny's bar mitzvah is fast approaching.
Now, as Judith and Sy blithely make living arrangements for everyone, his children ignore him completely, and threatening anonymous letters are being mailed to the tenure committee, Larry's comfortable world is disintegrating, and he simply cannot figure out what to do. He turns for guidance to his rabbis, but their help is cryptic, at best. Is this God's will? What is God trying to tell him? What can he do to appease the Almighty and let things be put to right again? And unfortunately for Larry—who simply wants to be a mensch, a serious man, a good man with a normal life—his woes are far from over.
A Serious Man, it seems, is the most direct that the Coen brothers have been about their idea of the way the world operates. Their body of work is rife with characters who meet untimely and seemingly random ends, who simply cannot catch a break. But whereas some of them (notably, the Dude in The Big Lebowski) manage to keep their troubles from getting in the way of having a good time, Larry is just snowed under. We're made to understand that Larry will never again be able to live a normal life. As in No Country for Old Men or Burn After Reading or Fargo or nearly any other Coen movie, tragedy and comedy strike simultaneously and at random; life is absurd, and it might be senseless.
Except, Larry senses something purposeful to the senselessness—and so do we. After all, Larry's tribulations all show up at once. Needing answers, Larry consults one rabbi after another, getting only unsatisfactory maxims: You need a new perspective! You must see this as God's will! Asking questions will get you nowhere! And your problems are just not that important.
Here the Coens show their hand—it's not precisely nihilism, but it certainly isn't cheery. Larry's problems (and by extension, ours) might be a product of God's cruel will, or the caprice of some other nasty and detached deity, or the whim of the vindictive fates, but in the end, it really doesn't matter. The questions you ask are not going to be answered. If you think they've been answered, just wait a little while. You'll see. God or fate or somebody's got your number. Whatever else this is, it is not random—so we'd better find the comedy in it.