I recently watched A Serious Man (ASM) for the fourth time.
So you may ask:
“Mort, why would you watch this film four times?”
“It’s possibly, the best Jewish-themed film of all time,” I’d reply.
Comment to readers who have not seen the movie or don’t remember it:
Do so at once.
You can stream it on Netflix.
Then after viewing the film, read my analysis and don’t forget to share it with your movie-going friends and/or your children.
ASM was written, produced and directed by the Coen brothers—Ethan and Joel. (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men and True Grit)
In 2009, ASM was nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the best Oscar.
Don’t take losing or winning too seriously.
Remember the ancient Hebrew proverb, “Losing means everything to a serious man and nothing to a non-serious man,”
But to fully understand ASM’s greatness, you must know the plot of the story.
Author’s note: Sorry to put you through this the synopsis below but it is necessary.
Plot synopsis from Wikipedia
“In a prologue, a Jewish man in an unnamed 19th-century Eastern European shtetl tells his wife that he was helped on his way home by Reb Groshkover, whom he has invited in for soup.
She says Groshkover is dead and the man he invited must be a dybbuk.
Groshkover arrives and laughs off the accusation, but she plunges an ice pick into his chest.
Bleeding, he exits their home into the snowy night.
In 1967, Larry Gopnik is a professor of physics living in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.
His wife, Judith, tells him that she needs a get so she can marry widower Sy Ableman, with whom she has fallen in love.
Meanwhile, their son Danny owes twenty dollars to an intimidating Hebrew school classmate for marijuana.
He has the money, but it is hidden in a transistor radio that was confiscated by his teacher.
Daughter Sarah is always washing her hair and going out.
Larry’s brother, Arthur, sleeps on the couch and spends his free time filling a notebook with what he calls a “probability map of the universe”.
Larry faces an impending vote on his application for tenure, and his department head lets slip that anonymous letters have urged the committee to deny him.
Clive Park, a South Korean student worried about losing his scholarship, meets with Larry in his office to argue he should not fail the class.
After he leaves, Larry finds an envelope stuffed with cash.
When Larry attempts to return it, Clive’s father threatens to sue Larry either for defamation if Larry accuses Clive of bribery, or for keeping the money if he does not give him a passing grade.
At the insistence of Judith and Sy, Larry and Arthur move into a nearby motel.
Judith empties the couple’s bank accounts, leaving Larry penniless, so he enlists the services of a divorce attorney. Larry learns Arthur faces charges of solicitation and sodomy.
Larry turns to his Jewish faith for consolation.
He consults two rabbis but his synagogue’s senior rabbi, Marshak, is never available.
The first, a junior rabbi, advises Larry to change his “perspective”; the second rabbi tells Larry a parable about a dentist.
Larry and Sy are involved in separate, simultaneous car crashes.
Larry is unharmed, but Sy dies.
At Judith’s insistence, Larry pays for Sy’s funeral.
At the funeral, Sy is eulogized as “a serious man”.
While her husband is away on business, Larry calls on his neighbor, Vivienne Samsky, whom he has seen sunbathing naked, and she introduces him to marijuana.
He later dreams that he is having sex with her, but this turns into another nightmare.
Larry is proud and moved by Danny’s Bar Mitzvah, unaware that his son is under the influence of marijuana.
During the service, Judith apologizes to Larry for all the recent trouble and informs him that Sy respected him so much that he even wrote letters to the tenure committee.
Danny meets with Marshak, a brief encounter in which Marshak only quotes Jefferson Airplane‘s “Somebody to Love,” names some members of the band, returns the radio, and tells Danny to “be a good boy”.
Larry’s department head compliments him on Danny’s Bar Mitzvah and hints that he will receive tenure.
The mail brings a $3,000 bill from Arthur’s lawyer. Larry decides to change Clive’s grade from F to C−, whereupon Larry’s doctor calls, asking to see him immediately about the results of a chest X-ray.
At the same moment, Danny’s teacher struggles to open the emergency shelter as a massive tornado closes in on the school.”
So after reading this plot, you may ask, with a look of total disbelief plastered across your face, “Mort, what makes ASM the best Jewish-themed film of all time?”
“Simplemente, A Serious Man makes you analyze your life.
How many films make you do that?” I’d reply.
The Coen brothers created one hell of a serious film.
Just study the movie’s title.
It sucks—no pizzazz.
The audience will never remember a title as boring as “A Serious Man.”
I even feared using it in the title of this story.
Then I realized, “The title poses some very significant questions.
- Only you can answer these questions. Don’t cheat and ask for help;
- Answering these questions my force you to open your eyes a bit. You may see things that you don’t want to see;
- My answers are solely based on my life experiences. They may be of little help to you;
- Therefore, formulate your own answers;
- Like most ethical questions, there are no right or wrong answers.
Q: Are you serious man or woman? Are you a serious Jew? Are you a serious Zionist?
A: I bet you think you are.
Just like you think, you’re pretty good looking, pretty intelligent and pretty good in bed.
A cautionary note: Your seriousness could be delusional.
Q: Should I take life seriously?
A: Ça dépend, some of the best advice I have ever given stressed-out colleagues, “Don’t to take your job or you’re life too seriously. This too shall pass.”
Q: Should I behave in a serious manner?
A: Of course you should, but from my global perspective, it appears that vast numbers of people have little to no understanding of the meaning of “serious.”
Q: When life or Hashem gives your lemons the size of cantaloupes, should you seek out a rabbi’s advice to solve your problems? (See plot Larry’s life)
A: It couldn’t hurt.
But on the other hand, it may not help.
Q: If your life is totally f’up, who do you blame Hashem or your parents?
A: Here you must pause and think of people you know who have totally f’up their lives. You know a whole bunch of these people.
You know the total losers or the unlucky ones—who manage to find solace in blaming their parents and/or Hashem for all of their problems. (See plot—Sy in the movie goes with Hashem.)
Q: When a dybbuk appears in your life what do you do? (Refer to plot— Prologue)
A: Run like hell. A dybbuk‘s mission is to ruin your life. Your mission is to avoid dybbuks at all costs. (Read People of The Lie by M. Scott Peck)
Q: Who are Larry’s dybbuks?
A: This is a tough question or should we say a serious question. Many times dybbuks destroy our lives before they can be identified.
Here are Larry’s: Sy Abelman— his wife’s lover, his wife Judith, his brother Arthur, his South Korean student, Clive and his father and Larry’s neighbor, Vivienne Samsky.
Q: Who are the dybbuks in your life?
A: Think about it.
Q: Why did the Coen brothers select the Jefferson Airplane’s hit, “Somebody to Love” to be part of their soundtrack?
A: Because the song sums up the very essence of why we are on this planet:
Don’t you want somebody to love
Don’t you need somebody to love
Wouldn’t you love somebody to love
You better find somebody to love…
Rabbi Marshak, the Coen brothers and the Jefferson Airplane understood these lyrics.
But Larry “our serious man” searches in the dark for the reason life is taking a dump on him instead of trying to find somebody to love.