A Serious Man


When I arrived (late) there was  some Vorspiel going on about a Jewish couple in Eastern Europe either entertaining a dybbuk who has wandered in from a snowstorm or stabbing an innocent rabbi, depending on which way you want to look at it.  And the husband sums it up by saying We are doomed now.

Then after the credits the film switched to following the life and misfortunes of Larry Gopnik, an assistant professor waiting on tenure at the local university.  We are apparently in the Mid-West in the late 1960s. Larry has a medical and his doctor (who smokes) tells the non-smoking Larry he in in fine physical shape.  His wife Judith say she wants to leave him for Cy Ableman, his son plays around, the mentally-disturbed brother living in his family home causes legal difficulties through illegal gambling and homosexual solicitation.  Everything is costing a lot of money and Larry has to pay for it all–a Korean student offers him money to improve his grade–Cy Ableman gets killed in a car accident and Judith wants Larry to pay for his funeral.

Things seem to be looking up when the local Jewish community (must be Orthodox, since they say HaShem for God) attend his son’s bar mitzvah and Larry’s professor says he has been granted tenure.  Then Larry looks at a legal bill for a long time and finally changes the Korean’s grade.  At which point the doctor rings him and says he must come urgently to review his X-rays (and he *must have* lung cancer following the smoking thing at the beginning).  So he’s been like Schrodinger’s Cat (which he lectures on at one point) all this time, and now his wavefunction has collapsed?  Cancer obeys classical mechanics, but in a film what it is depends upon seeing it

So was this the Book of Job?  HaShem tests Larry and after he has acted righteously  (even failing to get off with Mrs Samsky) extends his grace in the form of tenure, and then condemns him to death after he takes the bribe?  When Larry and Cy Ableman are involved in simultaneous but separate traffic accidents Larry survives–he is actually engaged in rejecting Clive Park at the time–while Cy perishes, after he has lured Larry’s wife away and sent the university anonymous letters denouncing him.

So what’s with the Vorspiel then?  Deuterоnomy 14:something (14:12?) says that fathers shall not be executed for the sins of the sons, nor sons for the sins of the fathers.

There are three scenes where Larry goes to see rabbis of increasing seniority without receiving useful guidance.  Larry should look at things a different way; maybe HaShem couldn’t be understood; the rabbi was too busy (thinking).  Surely in real life a rabbi would want to see both husband and wife and emphasise the sanctity of family life, or indeed summon Judith for a disciplinary interview on this very topic.  In fact, this *must be* a joke like the ‘non-smoker/lung cancer’ one since from what I know Orthodox rabbis are notorious for their keenness to involve themselves in the family lives of their charges.

Or maybe the point is that everything’s just fucked up, as with the dentist who found Hebrew letters signifying Help me Save me on the inside of a patient’s teeth.

Or perhaps we need to draw practical lessons:  Larry should have immediately shoved the dubious approach from the Korean student up his management’s arse (which is what they’re there for), while Judith should have realised that she’d married an academic and of course he’d spend the evenings marking….

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One Response to “A Serious Man”

  1. Raimond Says:

    I can’t understand this film is not worthy of comment, enigmatic and deeply troubling as it was. A few nuggets of orthodoxy humour got past me – thanks for the help on this account, and for your readable digest.

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