Shtetl Husband: What a marvel... what a marvel.
In the wake of my first experience with “A Serious Man”, I was possessed with such a rapturous yearning to assess the essence of the Coen mantra that I began this list. What resulted was a half-assed countdown that devolved into oblivion with much haste. And so I never came to contemplate in writing this bizarre melo-dramatic-dark-comedy-mystery. But the day has come, my friends, for I have now revisited this super serious enigma.
Dr. Larry Gopnik is a fine fellow, a physicist seeking tenure with two (mostly petulant) children, a wife, a neck-pussing live-in brother, and a mysteriously attractive neighbor who has a tendency towards smoking pot and sunbathing topless. For obvious reasons, Larry's world is knowable, and therefore pleasant.
Then bad things happen to Larry. Bad things. For starters, Larry's wife leaves him for a stooge. Later the stooge dies. Other things happen too. But none of this is very important.
What is important, is that you, "Let it breathe." After all, "...this is an incredible bottle. This is not Mogen David. This is... a wine, Larry. A Bordeaux." Do you yet understand?
Larry wants to know why. Why are these things happening? Perhaps Larry's Korean student, Clive, has the most accurate answer for him. Unfortunately Larry doesn't hear it, or at very most, Larry doesn't intake it. When told that actions have consequences, the frustrated student responds, "Yes, often."
If our work only often has direct responses, then Newton's laws of thermodynamics are not laws at all; they are only tendencies. Every action often has an equal and opposite reaction.
The opening lines of the film are the words, "A marvel, a marvel." Why do the Coen Brothers begin their film with such a situation? I would venture to guess that these words are part one of a two part answer.
The resolution of the film occurs as Larry's son gets a visit with the wise old Rabbi, the very man that Larry has hopelessly pursued the council of. With this old man lies all the hope that we can summon. When he finally does speak, what at first sounds like rubbish is indeed intoxicated with an aura of understanding. The rabbi quotes a rock band that the young son has been listening to -- furthermore, he gives the boy back his confiscated walkman, and leaves him only with the happy slogan, "Be a good boy."
The world is a marvel and our response to its perplexity should simply be to be good. That's it. That is all that Larry should worry his little head about --- and perhaps he should consider the parking lot too, if he wishes (but even that too, is really just an illustration of how the world is a marvel).
Sister Aloysius: You just want things to be resolved so you can have simplicity back.
At the end of the day, I think the embrace and intention of "A Serious Man" is humble. Though its title mocks the concept of a far reaching ideology, its framework (Judaism) rectifies the arm's length. Larry Gopnik thinks he needs to understand the full character of God to understand what should become of his life, but his encounters with rabbis and townspeople slowly emphasize the truth that he need not understand really any of the big 'T' truth in order to live well. In fact he is taught that the less you deal, the happier you can be. After all, sometimes actions have no consequences at all.
But is it fair to leave the Coen's off the hook? It is so easy to say that life is 'a marvel', and that nothing really can be made of it beside black-and-white morality and aesthetically pleasing parking lots. But if all things are in a state of flux, and every action doesn't have an equal and opposite reaction, then one cannot know anything. The cat is indeed both dead and alive. And if this is so, can you really persecute the man who killed the cat? He may have killed the cat, but it's still purring underneath that box.
These issues of uncertainty are at the core of the film "Doubt". This is why the 'Sisters of Charity' at the film's inner-city school can't sleep at night. They are plagued by the ravages of uncertainty, as they try to be 'good girls'.
"A Serious Man" is seriously unfair. It tells me to be good in an entirely ambiguous world. How? Tell me how. Do I stab the dybbuk, or leave him be?
I can't be a good boy. It's impossible under this lens. All I can do is marvel. Marvel all day. But that's just boring and dumb. I'd rather not be able to sleep at night.
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.