A Serious Man

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We're Going To Be Fine...

Rabbi Nachtner: We can't know everything.
Larry Gopnik: It sounds like you don't know anything! Why even tell me the story?


A Serious Man is a 2009 film conceived by The Coen Brothers, depicting a few crazy days in the life of a midwestern physics professor, Larry Gopnik. Info Dump a-go-go:

Larry's wife Judith astounds him with her announcement she intends to divorce him in favor of the more distinguished widower Sy Ableman; son Danny, whose Bar Mizvah approaches, smokes weed while he pretends to study; whiny daughter Sarah sneaks money from his wallet to save up for a nose job so she can look less Jewish. At the college, a student named Clive attempts to bribe him for a passing grade -- and the boy's father threatens to sue him for defamation should he go public. He is kicked out of his own house and forced to live in a crummy motel with his sickly and eccentric brother Arthur. Oh, and someone's been writing anonymous letters to his university warning them not to grant Larry tenure. Can things get any worse?

Oh yes, they can.

Tropes used in A Serious Man include:

"The teeth? I don't know. Signs from Hashem? I don't know. Helping others? Couldn't hurt."


Goys, aren't they?

  • Deus Angst Machina: Larry is a modern-day Job; the misfortunes just keep piling up.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: If you interpret the ending events as punishment, then Larry is stricken with a fatal illness for raising a student's grade, and Danny is going to be run down by a tornado for listening to music in class.
  • Dream Sequence: Larry has three: in one, Sy returns from the grave to harass him; in another, he and Arthur are killed by their neighbours. It turns into a Catapult Nightmare.
  • Eccentric Mentor: The third rabbi.
  • Erotic Dream: Larry's apparent steamy scene with Mrs. Samsky never actually happens.
  • Fake-Out Opening
  • Femme Fatale: Mrs. Samsky seems to be one ... but really isn't.
  • Gainax Ending/No Ending: Larry accepts the bribe and is immediately called by his doctor to discuss some findings during an examination. Meanwhile, a tornado has touched down outside Danny's school. The film ends before we find out what happens next to them. Good luck determining what it means.
  • God Is Evil: Or at least appears that way as a result of being completely incomprehensible. Alternately, He is just, but harsh to Old Testament levels.
  • Hollywood Heart Attack: An Averted Trope. A minor character's heart attack consists of him making a pained face and collapsing.
  • It Gets Worse: It really does.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Right after Larry accepts a bribe, his doctor calls him; it is strongly implied that Larry is very ill.
  • Leitmotif: "Somebody to Love" by Jefferson Airplane.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Sy Abelman, or so it's implied
  • Morton's Fork: A student who has failed his exam leaves an envelope of money in Larry's office, as a bribe to get a passing grade. When Larry discusses the matter with the student's father, he realises that he has three equally unpleasant options that fit in well with the previously explained theme of Schroedingers Cat.
    • Accept the bribe.
    • Give the money back to the student, in which case the father will sue Larry for slander (for accusing the student and his family of bribery).
    • Keep the money and fail the student anyway, in which case the father will report him for theft.
  • Mushroom Samba: Danny's bar mitzvah.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Mrs.Samsky, sunbathing in the nude.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: Totally averted. The trailer is an incredible work of art in its own right.
  • Not His Sled: If you read this as a retelling of the Book of Job - he forsakes his piety and dies of cancer.
  • One-Scene Wonder: The extras casting in this film is absolutely pitch-perfect, and most of the minor characters only flit in for a scene and then disappear, so there are a lot of these.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: The wife Dora at the beginning of the film takes this as a sign that the rabbi visiting them is actually a malevolent undead. But whether in response or from delayed reaction, he slowly begins to bleed...
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: Larry sees his neighbour as an anti-semitic borderline psychopath. His worst crime onscreen is wanting to build a boat shed and disagreeing with Larry about the property line. Moreover, when Clive's father is threatening Larry, his neighbour walks over and asks if the man is bothering him, apparently ready to come to his aid. It's Larry who refuses the help.
  • Romantic False Lead: Sy.
  • Rule of Three: Examined here.
  • Running Gag:
    • Jews going "Jesus Christ!"
    • "Be out in a minute!"
    • "Fucker."
    • "Sy Ableman?"
  • Schrodinger's Cat: Occurs multiple times as a general theme, both on a literal and metaphorical level. It can be seen as a metaphor for general uncertainty in the world.
    • Discussed literally in the film since Larry is a physics teacher
    • Larry's marriage is in completely the opposite state to what he thought it was,
    • When Larry both is and isn't being bribed.

Clive's Father: Please. Accept the mystery.

    • Reb Groshkover (the old man in the first scene) is one, since he both is and is not dead.
    • The end: In our minds Larry and his son are both dead and not dead
  • Shaggy Dog Story:
    • The Tale of the Goy's Teeth. The teller doesn't seem to realize that it's an example.
    • Arguably, the whole movie, if not Shoot the Shaggy Dog.
  • Shout-Out: To the Bible, obviously.
    • Larry seeing his neighbour sunbathing topless is reminiscent of David seeing Bathsheba.
    • The overarching story itself has been compared to the story of Job.
    • If you're fast enough to catch it, apparently Larry's wife is using Tuchman Marsh, aka the Law Firm briefly mentioned in the Coen Brother's previous film, Burn After Reading.
  • The Sixties: The story is set in 1967.
  • Small Reference Pools: The two scenes of Larry lecturing what's presumably Quantum Mechanics feature him explaining Schrodinger's Cat and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The melancholy soundtrack emphasizes the darker undertones of what is ostensibly a comedy. And after the ending, it's unlikely you'll ever hear "Somebody To Love" the same way again.
  • Throw the Dog a Bone: Despite all the bad things that happen to Larry, he gets tenure.
    • Also, Larry and his wife visibly seem a lot happier together when Danny completes his bar mitzvah, and one could argue that this event has reminded them of the value of staying together (his wife has, after all, emphasized the need to keep things stable for the children).
  • Trauma Conga Line: This is a Coen Brothers film, so expect this to be done to absurd levels.
  • Title Drop: At Sy's funeral, and also when Larry tries to get an appointment with the third rabbi.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: "I don't want Santana's Abraxas! I don't need Santana's Abraxas! I'm not going to listen to Santana's Abraxas!"
  • The Walrus Was Paul: Any attempt to analyze the film will reveal a tangle of mixed messages, incongruous scenes, and a generally incomprehensible mess. Given the subject matter of the film and the style of the creators, this is almost certainly intentional. Lampshaded to hell and back by The Second Rabbi. His story about The Goy's Teeth explicitly tells the audience that trying to decipher meaning and extract symbolism from this movie is a futile effort, and that many of the things we see were placed there for no other reason than to screw with your head if you think about them for too long. They don't have to mean anything, they're just there.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Several questions that crop up throughout the film (What was up with that opening sequence? How did the dentist's patient get those carvings on his teeth?) go unanswered by its end - almost certainly deliberately, given the nature of the plot.
  • The World Is Just Awesome: The youngest rabbit tries to get Larry to see the world this way. Unfortunately he becomes fixated on using a parking lot as his example.
  • Wham! Line: "Oh, Sy Ableman died in a car crash". Especially funny in that the person delivering the line thinks of it wholly as an afterthought.
  • Xanatos Gambit - Clive's father's plan against Larry is one. If Larry reports the bribe, he will be sued for defamation. If he pretends the bribe didn't happen but doesn't raise Clive's grade, he will be sued for taking money. Ultimately his only option is to take the bribe or risk losing everything.
  • Yiddish as a Second Language: Yiddish as a first language for the prologue. It's also a sign of the times for 1967 that most middle-aged American Jews in the film know a lot of Yiddish. Many of them are probably first-generation Americans.