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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Serious Man (2009) and the Meaning of Life

"Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you."
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed
Written By: Joel & Ethan Coen
Directed By: Joel & Ethan Coen
Release Date: October 2, 2009

At the beginning of the film, we meet Vebel, who was helped by a man on his way home. He invites this man over and his wife tells him that the man he speaks of died a while back. Vebel and his wife are confronted by the man moments later and she proposes that the man is a demon and eventually stabs him. The man laughs when he's questioned by Vebel's wife and when she stabs him, but before he leaves he asks Vebel who he believes is possesssed. Is it the man or is it his wife who has just stabbed him? Once the man leaves, Vebel states that they are ruined and this is because he's now been confronted with two different ideas that disrupt everything he knows to be true. Was the man a demon? Should he trust his wife? What should he do? While the answers to these are not important and go unanswered because of it, Vebel's story is an allegory that sets up the entire film. 
Larry Gopnik, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, is a physics teacher struggling to find some serious clarity for his messed up life. His wife, Judith (Sari Lennick) wants a gett, the Jewish equivalent to a divorce, so that she can marry Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who lost his wife just three years prior. His brother (Richard Kind) is unemployed and stays with him while works on a map of the universe. On top of that, one of Larry's students is trying to blackmail his way into a better grade.
When his misfortune begins, Larry continuously asks himself the one question any rational person in his situation would. Why me? I haven't done anything. He asks this question so many times in film, it almost becomes down-right annoying. However, the film begins to take an interesting turn when he takes it upon himself to ask other people these same questions. He visits a Rabbi first and the basis behind what the Rabbi says to him is that God made it happen simply because he did. He tells Larry that all of the things happening to him, good or bad, are expressions of God's will and that the only thing he can do is change his perspective and accept them for what they are. However, it is because of the way the film is set up, the advice is played off as some absurdest spiel and like Larry, we ignore it. Larry simply refuses to accept that God would let this happen to him without giving some sort of explanation and continues his search for the truth without doing much to actually put his problems to rest, which is why the continue to escalate throughout the course of the film.
It is not until he meets with the second Rabbi that the real meaning behind the film begins to show itself. When he meets with the second Rabbi after not finding what he was looking for with the first, that interaction really sheds light on not only exactly what kind of person Larry is, but how it's inhibiting him from finding peace with his life as well. He tells Larry the story of a dentist that found words carved into his patient's mouth. The story depicts the dentist's search for the meanings behind the words and why they were in the man's mouth in the first place. When the Rabbi finishes the story, Larry asks him what the point of the story was and leaves, like the man, empty handed in his search. The Rabbi points out that Larry and the dentist aren't too different from one another, but the biggest difference between the two men is that the dentist is satisfied in not finding out the answers to his questions while Larry is not.The Rabbi is trying to tell Larry that he is trying to find solutions to questions that don't need to be, much like our interest in whether or not the man was a demon at the beginning of the film. 
But Larry still doesn't get it and this is because of the kind of person he is. Larry, again, is a physics teacher. Everyday, he works with equations and math problems that seemingly have clear-cut solutions which is why he is looking for the same sorts of solutions to his real-world problems. Physics makes up everything in the universe and it's easy for Larry to comprehend because it proposes the idea there's an explanation for everything. However, life doesn't work that way and one can't use math to solve real-world problems, so  Larry attempts to use other "serious" frameworks like religion to do it instead. Unlike physics which includes mathematical explanations to problems, religion induces theoretical explanations to problems. While the first Rabbi tells Larry that his problems are the result of God's will, the many stories in the Bible are the result of some sort of action. There's a cause-and-effect notion in many Biblical stories. Something is typically the result of something else. For example, Adam and Eve betrayed God and that's the reason why they were banished. Larry seemingly hasn't done anything, so he's quite confused about why God would punish in him like this, but sometimes things just happen and it is not in your control.
 But Larry is looking for clear-cut answers as I pointed out previously, and because he isn't getting any, he does nothing to solve his problems. Before all these problems arose, he never had anything to deal with. He believed that simply doing good things like putting his children into Hebrew school and doing whatever anyone asks him would be enough, but evidently it is not because he's still suffering, which scares him into not doing anything because he doesn't want to do the wrong thing.When he has the dream of him giving the bribe money to his brother, it slowly turns into a nightmare and he is scared into inaction even though it is just a dream. However, it's important to note that while actions may have consequences, so does inaction. Complacency, in itself, is just as wrong as doing the wrong thing because you're not actively accepting the situation for what it is and moving on with your life which is why things begin to get worse. Even when he begins to "seriously" look at his life, he, like the many people around him, are asking the wrong  questions and looking in the wrong places for those answers instead of simply living, thinking, doing something about the situation and eventually moving on.
Though the story is primarily about Larry, through cuts at the beginning of the film, we're physically shown the similarities between Larry and his son. Both he and Larry are running away from their problems and continue to live their lives, seemingly ignoring them. His son is being threatened by a bully for some money for weed and it's a seemingly realistic threat, much like Larry's, so we sympathize with his fear to take action. This is also because, like Larry, his son also worries about the consequences for his actions. When he gets the money back, should he repay his sister? Should he give the money to the bully or buy more weed with it? And if he repays the bully, will he still beat him up for taking too long with it? All of his son's problems are embodied in the form of this bully, but like Larry, he's also not doing anything about it and he's not seeing the bigger picture.
He doesn't see that the ultimate problem in life is death, which is something you can't run away from. Everyone eventually will die, but we tend to overlook that and focus on other, more minuscule problems in our lives. It is not until the end of the film when Larry's son chooses to act that the bully turns to face him that he takes a look at the real problem, death at the hand of a tornado. And it's not until Larry changes the grade that he finds out he's been sick all this time and hasn't known it. While neither of them did anything to cause any of these events, Larry will most likely blame himself for them because he did something seemingly wrong. But no matter how many questions you have or how you feel about a situation and it's outcome, what matters is your action. The only thing you can do is what the last Rabbi tells Larry's son. "Be a good boy." We can strive for greatness and do everything right, but bad things will still happen. It's inevitable because we cannot dictate what happens to us, but that doesn't mean we cannot attempt to make things better. Trying to impose a clear-cut framework, like religion or physics, into the craziness of the real world can only undermine all your good work because when you are rewarded, you're still seemingly stuck because of something else. When Larry's wife apologizes and he gets tenure and his son gets his money back, it's all overshadowed by the news of his illness and his son's impending death. The belief that we have control over the things that happen to us can only provide a comfortability that's quite false. All we can do is be a good boy, find somebody to love and sit back and live our lives and hope for the best. None of the answers to the film's issues are easy by any means, but are there really any easy answers in the first place?

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