The Oscars

“What’s Going On?’

Revisiting A Serious Man, the most puzzling of the best-picture nominees.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the 82nd Academy Awards here.

A Serious Man

Avatar is a model best-picture candidate: it’s brassy and has a discernible point to make. You hardly need a Ph.D. in political science to get that James Cameron worries about military imperialism and the squandering of our natural resources. A Serious Man, also in contention this year, is a more unusual choice—even allowing for the fact that its creators, the Coen brothers, have slipped difficult fare into the proceedings before. Enigmatic to the point of inscrutability, A Serious Man leaves audiences in a state of interpretive uncertainty, popcorn uneaten, wondering what the Coens are getting at. The TimesA.O. Scott summed up the critical consensus when the film came out in theaters last fall: “The story is at once hilarious and horrific, its significance both self-evident and opaque.” Horrific and opaque? The academy usually quarantines those qualities in the screenwriting category.

Arguably, the point of A Serious Man is to create confusion. But after watching the film a second time—it’s just been released on DVD—it seems worthwhile to revisit some of the questions it raises.

Why Larry?

Larry Gopnik, the film’s sad-sack protagonist, asks “What’s going on?” no fewer than seven times, by my count. The viewer knows how he feels. Why are such terrible things happening to a nice, Midwestern physics professor raising two kids in the Jewish faith? Within a two-week period: A disgruntled student tries to bribe and then blackmail him, an anonymous rival sends nasty notes to his university’s tenure committee, his wife asks for a divorce, and his lawyer drops dead right in front of him. Each ordeal is fairly banal on its own. But Larry (and the audience) can’t help but wonder whether, taken together, they might indicate a cosmic source.

As just about every reviewer noted, the sudden disintegration of Larry’s life is meant to evoke Job, whom God punishes—killing his family, destroying his livestock—just to see if he’ll remain upright and holy. (Satan bets he won’t; God bets he will.) As the saying goes, Job’s patience is difficult to try; but the biblical character is actually quick to air his grievances. And when God makes an appearance at the end, it’s to belittle Job for complaining. He delivers one of the more sarcastic lectures in Scripture: “I am going to ask the questions, and you are going to inform me! Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me, since you are so well-informed!” The standard interpretation is that Job can’t possibly understand the complexity of God’s decision-making, and that it’s presumptuous for us mortals to even try.

Unable to question God directly, Larry takes his problems to a series of rabbis, who push a Job-ish moral. The first rabbi, Scott, suggests, “You have to see these things as expressions of God’s will. You don’t have to like it, of course.” When Gopnik complains to the second rabbi, Nachtner, that he just wants “an answer,” Nachtner reprimands: “The answer! Sure! We all want the answer! But Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.” It’s the modern equivalent of, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?”

Sudden hardships aside, however, Gopnik isn’t much like Job—an aggressive, willful character who rants until God grants him an audience. As The New Yorker’s David Denby observed, Gopnik “won’t take a shot at anyone, or try to control anyone, verbally or any other way. … [He’s] a schlep and a weeper.” That’s exactly right and gets at a more earthbound explanation for Gopnik’s misfortunes. Another of Gopnik’s constant refrains is, “I haven’t done anything.” After his wife announces that she wants a divorce: “What have I done? I haven’t done anything.” On the phone with a representative from the Columbia Record Club, who’s hounding him for payment: “I didn’t ask for Santana Abraxas. I didn’t listen to Santana Abraxas. I didn’t do anything.” During a conversation about his tenure prospects: “I haven’t done anything. I haven’t published.” If at first Gopnik sounds wrongly maligned, eventually he seems weak. His insistence on inaction makes the viewer wonder if that very inaction is why so much trouble comes his way. Perhaps his are sins of omission. He is not a bad husband; he provides for his family; he’s faithful—one could do worse. But there’s no indication that he’s particularly engaged. He may not be a bad professor, but neither is he an especially good one: As he says, he hasn’t done anything, hasn’t published anything.

Gopnik’s irritating meekness is most obvious in his parenting. He launches the majority of his “What’s going on?” queries at his kids, who never bother to answer. He has no idea that Danny’s a stoner, or that Sarah’s trying to finance a nose job by stealing money from his wallet. They’re brats, but whose fault is that? When Danny complains that F Troop looks fuzzy, Gopnik climbs up to the roof and twists the aerial, but he never manages to fix the reception. So Danny calls his dad to whine, and Gopnik looks put-upon. Which is worse, Danny’s shamelessness or Gopnik’s spinelessness?

A physics professor, Gopnik knows that “actions have consequences,” as he puts it to Clive, the student who’s trying to bribe him. He adds, “Not just physics. Morally.” It seems more difficult for Gopnik to grasp that inaction may have consequences, too. But, intellectually at least, he knows that’s the case. When his brother, Arthur, complains that “Hashem hasn’t given me shit,” Gopnik replies, “It’s not fair to blame Hashem. Arthur, please. Please calm down. Sometimes you have to help yourself.” It’s his truest line.

Why the Yiddish prologue?

The movie opens with a Yiddish-language set-piece. Somewhere in the Old Country, a husband announces to his wife that Traitle Groshkover is coming over for soup. “God has cursed us,” she says. Her friend sat shiva for Groshkover when he died three years earlier, so whoever’s visiting is surely a dybbuk—a malicious spirit. When he arrives, Groshkover laughs off the accusation, as does the husband: “I, of course, do not believe such things. I am a rational man.” But the wife’s not having it: She stabs Groshkover with an ice pick.

One interpretation of this scene holds that the husband and wife are Larry’s ancestors, and that Larry is being punished for their sin. “The troubles surrounding Larry Gopnik in suburban Minnesota many generations later can only be seen as the revenge of ‘Hashem,’ ” writes Denby. “If that Old Country dybbuk was not God himself, he must have been in God’s employ.” Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir advances the same theory: Maybe “the people in the 1960s story are still paying off the debt incurred by that couple in the Yiddish tale.”

But perhaps it’s not right to interpret the set piece so genealogically or even to assume that the couple did something wrong. What if the wife were actually a positive foil? Instead of sheepishly appealing to the logical impossibility of ghosts, as her husband does, or passively waiting to see what comes next, as Gopnik would, she takes matters into her own hands. “Good riddance to evil,” she says when Groshkover walks out the door, bleeding. Maybe Gopnik would fare better if he had half of that gumption.

What does the ending mean?

None of this is to suggest that A Serious Man isn’t primarily about questions and unknowability. It’s tempting to see Larry’s inaction as the root of his problems, but the Coens ultimately confound that interpretation, too. As soon as Gopnik finally does something—he accepts the student’s bribe—his doctor calls with what is clearly bad news (though we’re not privy to its precise nature). At the very same moment, a tornado moves in the direction of Danny’s Hebrew school. There are two basic ways of interpreting the ending. Either God is punishing Gopnik for taking the bribe, or God will punish Gopnik no matter what he does for reasons beyond our comprehension. Larry can take the bribe or not take the bribe; it doesn’t matter. He can no more control the decay of his body than control nature; the universe is too complex to hinge on petty decisions.

Or maybe the ending functions as a comment on Job. In the biblical story, God delivers his lecture “out of the whirlwind,” then softens up and gives Job “double what he had before.” It’s a Hollywood ending. The Coens, indie filmmakers, seem to think a bleak story deserves an equally bleak ending.

Slate V: Dana Stevens critiques Oscar contender A Serious Man.

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