“[The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle] proves that we can’t ever know what’s going on….But even if you can’t figure anything out, you’re still responsible for this on the midterm.”
So Larry Gopnik, the physics professor at the heart of A Serious Man, tells his class about midway through the new film from the Coen brothers, basically summing up the entire movie.
Most of the Coen brothers’ films follow an Everyman caught up in morally questionable dealings, but A Serious Man deals with moral uncertainty more directly than films such as Fargo or even No Country For Old Men. Part of this comes from the fact that Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) may be the Coen brothers’ most innocent protagonist—unlike Jerry Lundegaard, Llewelyn Moss, or even the Dude, Gopnick doesn’t do anything (as he repeatedly insists throughout the movie) to bring on an onslaught of crises. Life merely seems to happen to him, and he spends most of the film trying to figure out why.
If this seems reminiscent of the Book of Job, that’s because it is. A Serious Man is a loose retelling of the Biblical story set in suburban Minneapolis during the late ‘60s. Stuhlbarg spends much of his time playing Gopnik keeled over, with his head between his knees as he looks for counsel from generally unhelpful sources. Gopnik tries to get advice from the elderly Rabbi Marshak, who is more like an absent Godot than a God: He doesn’t do pastoral work anymore, he just congratulates the Bar Mitzvah boys. Instead, Gopnik has to settle for the junior rabbi, Rabbi Scott, who looks fresh out of rabbinical school, and Rabbi Nachtner, who tells him “the story of the goy’s teeth.”
The story of the goy’s teeth—about a dentist who finds a cryptic Biblical message on the back of a Gentile’s teeth—is meant to be advisory, but ends up coming across as completely impenetrable. This, of course, is the point. A Serious Man presents life in general as totally indecipherable. And yet, Gopnik, like his students, is going to be responsible for this. Continue reading »