Updated: Feb 18, 2021
A Serious Man is a dark comedy written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen. It was released in 2009 but set in the ’60s. Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor, is a “serious” man living in a not-so-serious world. Unfortunately for him, his perfect life turns upside down at the onset of the movie. His wife wants a divorce, his son just wants to get high, his daughter only cares about getting a nose job, and a Korean student at the university may or may not be trying to bribe him into changing his grade.
As the movie unfolds, Larry continues to ask, “What is going on?” or “Why is this happening?” Most of the absurdly tragic events happening to Larry—such as having to pay for his wife’s lover’s funeral, or having to pay for records he didn’t order—are caused because Larry continues to choose inaction over action. That is, Larry is more or less a passive observer in his life rather than an active participant. Although that path has led him to an almost guaranteed tenure position at the university, it appears that everything else is falling apart. As Larry so ineloquently notes throughout the film in response to the many tragedies, “he has done nothing,” which is a reflection of his life accomplishments that amount to nothing.
As a physics professor, Larry lectures about quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle, and Schrödinger’s Cat. So, let’s examine this.
Throughout the movie, Larry speaks with two rabbis and tries, in vain, to speak with a third, who is just too busy “thinking” to speak with him.
The first rabbi, Rabbi Scott (a young man), talks about perspective. In quantum mechanics, there is an infamous and perplexing problem known as “Schrödinger’s Cat.” This enigma has been highly debated by physics’ greatest minds, including Albert Einstein. It revolves around the idea that a cat in a box is both alive and dead until someone opens the box and makes an observation.
The “act” of observing forces the cat’s reality into existence, so to speak. The cat’s fate and the observer’s fate are entangled. To get back to Rabbi Scott’s point, he may be alluding to the idea that passively watching life’s events unfold is not necessarily an “act” of observation; rather, it is like keeping the cat in the box. Active observation changes perspective and forces nature’s true reality to become apparent and meaningful.
The second rabbi, Rabbi Nachtner (a middle-aged man), tells an ambiguous and incomprehensible story about a dentist who receives what appears to be a message from God. The message, found on a patient’s tooth mold, reads: “Help me, save me.” The dentist tries exhaustingly, and eventually in vain, to find out what the message means. Never finding the answer, the man returns to his normal life and forgets about it. Larry demands from Rabbi Nachtner to know what the message meant. The rabbi summarizes:
Rabbi Nachtner: We all want the answer! But Hashem (God) doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.
Larry Gopnik: Why does he make us feel the questions if he’s not gonna give us any answers?
Rabbi Nachtner: He hasn’t told me.
Around this time in the film, Larry lectures about the uncertainty principle:
Larry Gopnik: The uncertainty principle. It proves we can’t ever really know... what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the mid-term. (Instagram Picture)
Rabbi Nachtner’s point may be that the meaning lies in not knowing—it is the mystery or uncertainty of life that makes life interesting. If we knew everything, would life still have purpose?
Finally, Larry attempts to see Rabbi Marshak (an old man), who supposedly has great wisdom and the answers to everything. However, Rabbi Marshak refuses to see Larry. In fact, Rabbi Marshak only sees children coming of age. Near the end of the movie, Rabbi Marshak sees Larry’s son, Danny. Marshak utters complete nonsense but returns a Walkman to Danny (a teacher had taken it from him at the beginning of the movie), telling him to be a “good boy.” So much for great wisdom.
Other notable quotes from A Serious Man include:
"When we're puzzled we have all the stories that have been handed down from people who had the same problems."
“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” - Rashi
So what does it all mean? We’re born, we grow, we die. Some of us take life a bit too seriously. However, if we find ourselves lost in the question, changing our perception may provide additional incite. Think back to when you were a kid, everything was interesting and amazing. Then we grow old, the world becomes stale, and for some reason we stop growing. So we question our lives, our purpose, and our existence. The act of asking the question promotes new growth. We find signs everywhere, buy a new car, suit, dress, and take a trip to Papua New Guinea, Nantucket, or some other exotic destination. Life is great. So we return to normalcy. Life goes great for a while until the new car breaks down, the suit becomes torn, the dress tears on a street corner, and we realize we haven’t left the city in which we work for five years. So we seek wisdom from religion, elders, and ancient texts. They speak nonsense. Relaxing a bit, realizing no one knows the answer, we die. Thus is life. Enjoy the mystery, it gives us meaning.
We rate A Serious Man as follows:
Overall - 8
Meaning of Life Relevance - 10
Uniqueness – 6
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