Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 4

We’ve met Larry Gopnik and his son Danny and are acquainted with their problems.  What’s the story at Larry’s house?

He’s got a teenage daughter, Sarah, whose sole desires seem to be to fix her hair and to hang out with her friends.  Her little brother bugs her, her parents appall her, her uncle Arthur disgusts her.

The only thing we know at this point about Arthur is that he spends a lot of time in the bathroom, draining his sebaceous cyst.  It is, apparently, his sole activity.

He’s got a wife, Judith, who seems, at first, to be relatively normal, if a little severe.

Danny is on his way home from school.  On the bus, he commiserates with his 12-year-old friends about the loss of his radio and the $20 inside.  This scene is largely expository, although it does give Danny a milieu (his tough-talking pipsqueak friends) to help ground him in some kind of framework for his time.  It also presents a mystery: where did Danny come up with $20 to spend on pot?

Larry comes home to this assortment, apparently clueless to whatever tensions are simmering within his family.  He’s more concerned with his neighbor Mr. Brandt, who either is, or is not, encroaching on Larry’s property by mowing part of his lawn.  Mr. Brandt is one of the few goys present in A Serious Man, and he stands out in this neighborhood — big-headed, brush-cut, pig-eyed.  He is aggressiveness personified, and Larry is worried that he’s trying to expand his property into Larry’s, and fears conflict.  As well he might: the Six-Day War is (depending on when the movie is set) either a recent memory or very imminent.  (It is accepted that A Serious Man is set in 1967, but there is evidence that it is set as late as 1970, about which more later.)  Either Mr. Brandt is a symbol for anti-Jewish aggression, or he merely a gruff suburbanite — we don’t know.

At dinnertime, Larry wants to wait for Arthur to finish in the bathroom, but his family ignores him and starts anyway.  Some patriarch Larry is!  He has a simple wish to include his brother in a family meal and he holds no authority.  Larry’s sense of kinship with Arthur will develop into a key factor in the movie’s resolution.

Later that night, Larry sits at the kitchen table grading papers.  Judith comes in and drops a bomb on him: she has fallen in love with Sy Abelman (who Larry never did call back) and wants a divorce.  Larry is poleaxed by this development: he can barely remember who Sy Abelman is, much less imagine that his wife has fallen in love with him.  "A divorce?  I haven’t done anything," is Larry’s stammered response.  "I haven’t done anything" will come up again and again in different forms in A Serious Man.  Sometimes it means "I am innocent," but it eventually takes on a different meaning: "I have accomplished nothing."  The double meaning is key in Larry’s relationship with Judith, and it raises the question of Larry’s apparent lack of self-examination.  What the hell has he been doing with his life, wrapped up in his math, if his wife can begin an affair with a minor acquaintance and Larry knows nothing about it?  Larry’s head is yet another box he’s never looked into to see if the cat is dead or is not dead.

Also at question, of course, is Judith’s innocence.  She insists that she hasn’t betrayed Larry sexually, but there is good reason to doubt her sincerity.  She either has, or has not, slept with Sy Abelman, and that is a box Larry finds too alarming to look into.

Sy, Judith reports, wants a get, which is a Jewish divorce document, something Larry’s never heard of.  This will turn into a running joke, that everyone, from rabbis to lawyers, must be reminded what a get is.  Sy, who is the only character in the movie who actually uses the words "a serious man" to refer to himself, has a respect for law and tradition that even the religious authority figures in the movie don’t have.  Is this what makes him "serious?"  Or is he merely a pompous windbag who uses religious tradition as a cudgel when it suits his purpose?  Is he, with his citing of religious tradition, a more "serious man" than Larry, who stakes his sense of well-being solely on math?

Still later that night, Larry, with nowhere else to go, sleeps with his head on the kitchen table.  Arthur makes his first appearance — he emerges from the dark, a cloth pressed to his cyst, and drinks orange juice from the can out straight out of the refrigerator.  He is clearly a miserable man, in pain and possessing a thirst that, we sense, mere orange juice will not quench.  Larry looks at him with a kind of tender sympathy: Arthur looks how Larry feels — in pain, miserable and alone, thirsty in a world of darkness.

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16 Responses to “Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 4”
  1. voiceofisaac says:

    I’m convinced that “I haven’t done anything” is the most important line of dialogue in this movie, but not just because of its repeated use. So many of Larry’s problems have started precisely because of his inaction, and yet he uses the phrase over and over as a defense. It sums him up so perfectly to me.

    • Absolutely. He’s been adrift his whole life, as a husband, a father, a teacher, etc. So the marriage troubles come as a shock, as does the very idea that he might’ve wanted to publish or do something aside from the bare minimum needed for his tenure.

  2. Anonymous says:

    “There’s another Jew, son!”

    I like the idea that the two neighbours represent God and Satan, making the man’s son the Son of God.

    • Hm. Interesting idea. Where does the woman next door fit in?

      • Anonymous says:

        I would imagine she represents Satan. Temptaton, sin, all that jazz.

        • So you’re saying both neighbors represent the Devil?

          • Anonymous says:

            No, he’s saying the stern (possibly Anti-Semitic) Mr. Brandt is God, his quiet little son is Jesus and Mrs. Samsky (who wears bright, fire-like orange and smokes, often) is the Devil. Larry’s fear of Brandt and his possible encroachment into his property/life certainly seems Jewish. Worth considering, ‘specially since both characters factor prominently in Larry’s dreams (which have underlying themes of temptation, which tie into the film’s ending).

            -Le Ted

            • Anonymous says:

              “With Brandt as my witness, I will not abide another toe.”
              – Doctor Handsome

  3. dougo says:

    I don’t see how it can be “accepted” that it’s set in 1967, when Santana’s Abraxas came out in 1970.

  4. Anonymous says:


    Part 4 and we’re, what, about 15 minutes in? You seem to be slicing this one up pretty thin — feels like this is gonna run about 20 parts at this rate! Are you breaking it down like this because this is the structure of the film, or you have a lot to say about it and you’re stopping when you feel like you’ve done enough for a post, or…?

    Just curious, of course; I’d gladly read 20 parts. Probably twice.

    — Kent M. Beeson

    • Todd says:

      Two reasons:

      One, I’ve watched the picture a number of times and can find no easily discernible act breaks, which is generally how I divide up the posts. That, plus the density of this particular movie, seems to demand a different approach.

      Two, my schedule has changed recently, which gives me less time each day to blog. If I am to keep doing this on a regular basis, I have to post less material more often. In this case, it means posting analysis of a movie in seven-minute increments. Hopefully, this means that I’ll be able to analyze the thing more deeply, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.

      • Turns out the analysis has been even richer than usual as a result.

        • Anonymous says:

          Great Find!

          To all, and in particular Todd Alcott,

          I was fascinated with “A Serious Man” when I stumbled upon it by myself on pay-per-view. I played it again a week later with a friend who sent me this blog/analysis/dialogue. I don’t have anything intelligent to further the conversation, but just want to extend my appreciation for bright, refreshing commentary on a film evoking so much nostalgia, while inventing a completely new way to make an ancient technology relevant. Too many frames to process. I’m kvelling!