Although You Will Be Responsible for This on the Mid-Term
Rare is the time when I immediately connect with a movie character, and feel it's someone I can understand and relate to. That strange sense of automatic affection and familiarity can make a film both more engaging and emotionally grueling, as you're far more deeply invested in what happens to the character than you normally would be for, say, Han Solo, who's a great character, but you don't really know him, or people like him. For me, that character is Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man, for whom I had what I term a "Dream Weaver moment," like when Wayne first set eyes on Cassandra in Wayne's World.
Now, Larry, a put upon physics professor in 1967 Minnesota, may seem a rather odd movie character for someone to develop an instant and indelible crush on, but hear me out. It's really very simple: there's solidarity in suffering. Viewers of A Serious Man come away from it thinking one of two things about Larry: "Man, I'm glad I'm not that guy," or "Man, I wish I could give that guy a hug." It's one of the Coen Brothers' most polarizing movies, with its negative reviews describing it as "mean spirited" and "bleak." David Denby of The New Yorker was especially hard on it, criticizing Larry's inability to react to what happens to him with anything other than helpless flailing. But, you see, I recognize a kindred spirit in Larry's wary eyes. He's a nice guy. Maybe not the most ambitious fellow in the world, but he doesn't seem to ask for much either. There's a core decency to him, which makes what he's put through all the more painful to watch, particularly since there's no deeper meaning to any of it, which is something that both Larry and the audience can't accept.
This is, of course, one of the cornerstones of depression and anxiety, the sense that if we just had some sort of explanation for why bad things happen to us, for why it feels like the world is intent on crushing us to paste sometimes, it would make it more endurable. Despite it being steeped in Jewish mysticism, A Serious Man rivals No Country for Old Men in grim pragmatism. The takeaway from it is this: there is no greater meaning to life. There are no answers for why we suffer, and there's nothing we can do or change to prevent it. Fate plays no favorites, when it's your time to be buried in shit, you won't know it until the shovel hits you in the head.
Let's take a moment to review what Larry goes through, seemingly in a period of just a couple of weeks: his employer begins receiving anonymous letters smearing his name and possibly putting his tenure review in jeopardy. His brother, a vaguely creepy freeloader with a mysterious cyst that never seems to get better, shows signs that he's mentally unwell (and, in fact, is soon revealed to be in trouble with the law). A student's father tries to trap him in a bafflingly convoluted bribery and blackmail scheme over a failing grade. His neighbor seems intent on aggressively encroaching his way onto Larry's property, forcing him to contact a lawyer (who ends up dropping dead in front of him). His adolescent son owes money to the local middle school weed dealer. His teenage daughter is stealing out of his wallet. Most importantly, his wife announces that she's leaving Larry for their friend, insufferably smug widower Sy Abelman, and that Larry must move out of his house and into a motel.
His crumbling marriage and all the complications that brings would be more than enough for Larry to bear on its own, but combined with everything else it becomes almost comically overwhelming. It feels like something pointed and deliberate is happening, that Larry is being put through some sort of cosmic endurance test that he fails over and over, simply by not knowing what to do, or why any of it is happening. That's a refrain in A Serious Man, Larry saying some variation on "What have I done?", "I haven't done anything," or "I didn't do anything." Sometimes it's in response to a specific issue, but it can, naturally, be applied to the situation overall. Why is this happening to him? He doesn't deserve this. He hasn't done anything.
Indeed, Larry is a good person. He sees to his responsibilities. He's not flashy or aggressive. He's the kind of guy who thinks wearing a polka dot tie instead of a striped tie is living on the edge. He's probably never had sex with the lights on. According to a favorite phrase of my grandmother's, he wouldn't say shit if he had a mouthful. He's a quiet, unassuming man living a quiet, unassuming life, and foolishly thinks that should be enough to avoid those occasional bolts of lightning God likes to throw to shake people up and make sure they're paying attention. Most of us have an expectation that being a good person, a productive member of society who doesn't make trouble, should prevent anything bad from happening to us. Being a good person should be enough, but when life decides it's your time to be fucked hard, there's not much you can do about it.
Trying to find out why it's happening, or if there's any greater meaning to it, is a fool's errand, but Larry goes about it anyway. He seeks counsel at his synagogue, where the junior rabbi tells him he simply needs some perspective, an appreciation for the things he has rather than focusing on what he doesn't have. The second rabbi, after reciting a nonsensical fable about "the goy's teeth," tells Larry it's not his place to question God's will, and that he's better off just not thinking about what troubles him (which is, as anyone who struggles with anxiety knows, the single most useless piece of advice that can be given to an anxious person). The third rabbi, the ancient Rabbi Marshak, won't see Larry at all, even after he begs his secretary for an appointment. We later find out that Marshak's idea of "counsel" is to tell Larry's son on the day of his bar mitzvah "be a good boy," which, as we've already found out, guarantees us nothing in this life.
Unable to find answers or even genuine, comforting sympathy, Larry tearfully breaks down in front of his tenure supervisor, in the film's funniest, yet most heartbreaking scene. "I am not an evil man! I...am...NOT," he sobs, the closest he gets to openly raging at the unfairness of his situation. He then rattles off the sins he's committed in life, which number exactly one, a visit at some unspecified time to an "art" theater showing something called Swedish Reverie. "It wasn't even erotic! Although, it was, in a way," he says, covering his mouth in an embarrassed, almost prissy gesture, as if he can't believe what just came out of it. His baffled supervisor tries to reassure him that everything will be fine, as least as far as making tenure is concerned, and that he should just try to relax. Larry shakes off his breakdown and tries to put on a good game face. Sure, just try to relax.
2007 to 2009 was a cataclysmically bad period for me, involving parental death, the long-term illness and near-death of another loved one, emotional health issues within the family, job loss and attendant extended unemployment, collapsing friendships, and no small amount of minor yet vexing issues that made me feel as if I was being relentlessly poked by an army of malevolent elves bearing sharpened sticks. The best it got for my life during that time was "tolerable," but mostly it was awful, and, like Larry, it felt like I was being punished for something. For what, I had no idea--maybe it was because I didn't give money to every homeless person I saw on the street, or I entertained uncharitable thoughts about my co-workers. There were times when I too would have tearful breakdowns, insisting that I was a good person, and didn't deserve any of this. Nevertheless, it just kept coming, one thing after another, until suddenly it stopped. Things returned to normal, whatever "normal" means.
So too do Larry's problems eventually begin to resolve themselves. He agrees to take money to give his student a passing grade, and uses it to pay for his legal bills. His brother leaves town. It looks like he's going to be given tenure. His wife's lover dies unexpectedly, and Larry, in an effort to prove that he is, indeed, a serious man, pays for his funeral (that Sy evidently doesn't have family who can do it is a Coen Brothers signature Thing That is Never Explained). Such an act of generosity might seem beyond the pale, if you're fortunate enough to have never been in a situation where desperation leads you to think "I would do anything to make this better."
Things seem to be returning to the sense of dull normalcy that Larry craves. And then, as his son watches a tornado touch down on the horizon, Larry receives a phone call from his doctor telling him he needs to come into his office right away. Something about chest x-ray results. Larry's troubles have only just begun.
The film ends there in the same infuriatingly ambiguous way as No Country for Old Men. What does it all mean? Well, nothing. Larry went through all that, came out the other side, and then ran smack into an even bigger, more insurmountable wall. It's safe to assume that whatever his doctor has to tell him, it's probably a bigger issue than a student complaining about a failing grade. In fact, it may make all the worrying he did over everything that came before seem like an absurd waste of time. But that's how life works. That's how anxiety works: we don't know how to categorize something as a "big" problem or a "little" problem, especially when they all seem to come at once, so we just react to them in the same way, usually by flailing around and insisting that there must be some reason all this is happening, because otherwise what's the point?
Larry grudgingly accepts that he can't question why all this is happening to him, because either it's not his place to ask, or there's simply no answer. And yet, there's a clever sort of mystery about the ending. Maybe Larry is being punished for something. He did take a bribe, after all. He did awkwardly attempt to flirt with his topless sunbathing neighbor (though the sex dream he has about her later is fraught with guilt and anxiety, suggesting he doesn't feel particularly good about it). And isn't paying for Sy's funeral a bit self-serving, an attempt to make himself look heroic, rather than the selfless act of a truly serious man?
Maybe it's all of it. But most likely it's none of it. Life simply wasn't done having its way with Larry Gopnik.
So yeah, me and Larry, we're like war buddies. I know him, and I feel the same sort of affection and camaraderie for him as I do for real people who just can't seem to catch a break in life. If he had gritted his teeth and plowed through each problem like a "real" man (and maybe popped one in Sy's smug face while he's at it), it might have been more satisfying to some audiences, but it would have lost much of its humanity. None of us knows what to do when our lives are abruptly shaken up like a souvenir snow globe. Plans, safety nets, none of it matters when it's time. All we can do is hold on, and try to get our feet back on the ground before the next storm hits.