This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

What Does this Movie Mean? “A Serious Man” (2009)

I’ve really gotten sucked into blogging about politics for the last several weeks, so this Friday, I decided to do something fun. Every time my husband and I finish watching a “deep” movie, he turns to me and asks: “Okay, genius, in ten minutes or less: what does it mean?” Since I create these blurbs on a regular basis, I am going to start publishing them. These are not “reviews” per se, but just some thoughts on what I think these movies convey. Naturally, major spoilers follow, so read at your own risk.

A Serious Man (Coen Brothers, 2009)

This is one of the richest, deepest, saddest, most mysterious movies ever made. It is a philosophical and dramatic masterpiece, and interpreting it completely is an impossible challenge. But I’ll try interpreting it a little bit, anyway.


Larry Gopnick, a physics professor at a Midwestern college in the 1960’s, suffers a series of bewildering troubles. His wife announces that she wants a divorce so she can marry a neighbor. Because she wants to do so “in the faith” and cannot move in with her future husband out of propriety, Larry and his weird, troubled brother must leave and move into a seedy motel nearby. When his wife’s fiance dies in an accident, Larry is stuck making and paying for the funeral arrangements. A Korean student and his father are hounding Larry to accept a bribe for giving the student a passing grade. Larry’s Gentile neighbor has snatched a piece of Larry’s land. Larry’s children are terrible. Confounded by all these vagaries of life, Larry seeks answers in religion and finds none.

What it means: Somewhere in the middle of the movie, Larry is having a dream in which he is explaining the Uncertainty Principle to his class. The enormous blackboard is covered in formulas and calculations, and when Larry finishes writing everything out, he turns to face the room and says: “Even if you don’t understand any of this, you’ll still be responsible for it on the exam.” This is the key to the whole story. By the end of the movie, three things are certain:

(1) There is a God;
(2) God retains the right to give you a shitty life for no reason, or for some reason you can’t possibly understand, but whatever it is, you are still expected to be a good person upon pain of terrible calamity;
(3) Religion is bullshit, and clergy are snake-oil salesmen who don’t have the slightest idea what they are doing.

Religion is bullshit.

First of all, there is the whole hypocrisy of Larry being thrown out of his own home because his beastly wife wants to remarry “in the faith”. She and her beau have no problem with adultery or betrayal, as long as those are done by the book. In fact, according to them, it’s not even that: religion requires that Larry be thrown out.

And then there are the Three Rabbis. Seeking advice, Larry is first shunted off by the synagogal bureaucracy to see “Rabbi Scott”, a hunchbacked youngster who is hilariously inept at advising his troubled congregant. With no life experience to inform him, and not much brain to go with his ignorance, Rabbi Scott is hung up on ridiculous metaphors involving the synagogue’s parking lot. He vaguely describes the parking lot as a symbol of possibilities and freedom (so many spots to choose from! never mind they are all the same) emanating from God’s benevolence — which goes to show that he is an enthusiastic idiot just getting his feet wet at bullying people with “advice” that’s too vague and general to be useful, and insults one’s intelligence besides.

The second rabbi, Nachter, is a professional fake to Rabbi Scott’s amateur. He’s been doing this for a while, and so he’s shed the giddy enthusiasm that we see in the junior rabbi to become a smug nincompoop. He tells Larry a long, mystery-laden story, the point of which is that there is no point; his ultimate advice is that Larry should stop trying to understand things. This is a perfectly reasonable position for Nachter to take: what better way to rationalize his own incompetence and lack of understanding?

The third, and oldest, rabbi, Marshak, has barricaded himself off from the world behind his massive and ferocious secretary. His office is like a vortex, swirling a great mass of stuff. Notice a curious pattern: religious books are pushed out to the edges, while random curiosities and objects of nostalgia are crowded closer to the desk behind which the rabbi is sitting. And in the center of that vortex, on the desk, is Danny’s confiscated player. The only words we ever hear Rabbi Marshak utter are lyrics from a Jefferson Airplane song, “Somebody to love”:

When the truth is found to be lies
and all the joy within you dies

These are the members of Jefferson Airplane […] Go be a good boy.

This is the distillation of the wisdom he had collected and analyzed over a lifetime: be a good person; find somebody to love. Nothing else matters, and Marshak, unlike his younger colleagues, is tired of pretending. He is no longer interested in theology. The “truth” has turned out to be lies, and his happiness has ebbed away. His congregants, however, interpret his detachment as a sign of religious enlightenment.

Bovine complacency is NOT the answer.

Throughout the movie, other characters — most notably, Nachter — keep telling Larry that he needs to just accept things as they are and not wonder so much about God’s plans and purposes. Many viewers assume that is the point of the movie, the “message”, so to speak, that it’s designed to convey — and they are wrong.

There is an episode in which Larry is wondering why his neighbor always mows a part of his, Larry’s, adjoining lawn, and Larry’s wife counsels him to just accept it as one of those mysteries of life. Does it matter why he mows our lawn? she asks. Well, actually yes, it does matter: Larry’s neighbor thinks that portion of Larry’s lawn is actually his property. So evidently, simply accepting things as they are is the worst possible way to react.

Early on in the film, Larry and his wife are having an argument about the disintegration of their marriage, in which it is strongly implied that Larry has not had sex with her for a very long time. He apparently accepted their lack of intimacy as a normal thing — even though when his wife mentions it, she can barely contain her rage, a sign that her resentment over their lack of a sex life has been brewing for years — and lo and behold, now his wife has a lover fiance, and Larry has been ousted from his family and his home.

The “message” is clear: if you don’t tend to that garden, someone else will.

There is, therefore, both sexual and spiritual symbolism in the non-Jewish neighbor’s determined lawn-mowing.  (And blending the sexual and the spiritual is a time-honored tradition in religious mysticism; John Donne’s poem wherein he’s begging God to rape him is a good example.)  That connection between sex and God, between Larry’s loss of his family and his loss of any connection to God is especially vivid if you take into account the fact that rabbinical literature traditionally describes the relationship between the Jewish people and God as a marriage.

A marriage that the lightly observant, suburban Jews that populate A Serious Man clearly take for granted.  Think about these little tidbits:  at a picnic by the lake, a friend tells Larry that Jews are fortunate in having traditions that carry them through dark times; later, when Larry complains to his babely neighbor about the lawn-mowing situation, she snarls “Goyim?”, contempt practically dripping from her lips; and in Rabbi Nachter’s story, the Goy with the special teeth is treated as a mere vehicle for those teeth.  The Jews in this movie are comfortable in their sense of … well, if not superiority, then certainly that they have a special, intimate relationship with God that the non-Jews do not; en masse, they sleepwalk through their communal life as Larry has sleepwalked through his marriage, unaware that this covenant, this union with God that they take as a given may have long ago disintegrated.  Why?  Who neglected whom?  Whatever the answer, either the Jews or God may have taken on a new paramour; perhaps both.

When you realize all this, you also realize that the”wisdom” that most Jewish characters in <i>A Serious Man</i> extract from the distressing and the inexplicable  — that you should just accept things as they are and sail through life without looking for answers — is the same attitude that cost Larry his marriage, his family and his home.  It isn’t the moral of the story; the moral of this story is that this “wisdom” of unthinking, indifferent existence is absolutely wrong and spiritually destructive.

God will mistreat you, then punish you.

The end of the film sees Larry falsify a grade for a bribe, and God’s judgement is IMMEDIATE. It is at this point that it becomes painfully clear just how small and transient all of Larry’s middle-class malaise has been up to now, as he is about to lose the two things that matter most to a man: his son and his life. On the grand scheme of things, his crime isn’t even that egregious — but God can and does punish out of all proportion to the wrong. This comes back to Larry’s Uncertainty Principle: you must be good, even if your life is terrible and you don’t know why.

But what about the Prologue?

The Prologue introduces the theme of uncertainty. The married couple may be Larry’s grandparents, and Larry’s unhappiness may be the result of a curse, of sorts. One possibility is that the Gopnik family is infected by the malevolence of the dibbuk (though attacked and driven out, he had initially been INVITED under the couple’s roof, and evil, once invited, is almost impossible to purge). If the old man was not a dibbuk, Larry then is the “third generation” being punished for the sin of murder. On the more symbolic level, there is a contrast between how the husband and the wife think. The wife — devout, superstitious and suspicious — is a stranger to doubt. She stabs a man, convinced that he is an evil spirit, and does not give it another thought; calmly shuts the door and (presumably) goes to bed. It is her husband who agonizes over the whole thing. Having intelligence and an inquisitive mind is supposed to help us find answers to the very meaning of existence — but no, it is ignorance and stupidity that lead to confidence and calm, while analytic thinking brings with it only uncertainty and unsolvable dilemmas.

Stray observation: we ask the wrong questions and look for answers in the wrong places.

Rabbi Nachter’s “true story” involves a Jewish dentist who discovers Hebrew characters carved into the back of a Gentile’s teeth (he is referred to only as “the Goy”). The characters spell out “help me, save me.” What does it mean? Who made those carvings? Whose cry for help is it? The dentist goes on a long scholarly quest, but eventually gives up trying to find the answer. However, even while seized by the fever of mystery and unable to sleep at night, at no point does he ask the Goy about the stuff on the back of his teeth. The thought does not occur to Nachter or Larry, either. To an outside observer, asking the Goy would be the most obvious step, but those IN the story are blinded by their preconceived notions and assume that, because the Goy is a goy, the inscription on the back of his teeth can’t possibly have anything to do with him. Even though it’s on the back of HIS teeth. Don’t feel smug just yet, viewer: you too fruitlessly search for answers in your life in a way that’s hopelessly handicapped by biases imbibed since childhood. For this reason, we can never understand. Through a glass, darkly; animal shadows in a cave — we can never know the truth or understand God’s plan. Our only role is to follow the rules revealed to us.

Stray observation: Rabbi Nachter’s tea cup.

While counseling Larry, Rabbi Nachter takes countless tiny sips from a fine porcelain cup. Judging by appearance, it is “Lomonosov porcelain” — an example of rare, expensive fine china manufactured by a venerable Russian factory that once supplied all Imperial banquet tables. The cup’s significance is multi-faceted. To some extent, it is a reminder of Nachter’s (and Larry’s) Old World roots. More than that, I think it is symbolic of Nachter’s snobbery and superficiality. His delicate sips and the fine cup give the interview the air of an upper-class European “visit”; you would think Nachter was an aristocrat holding a “toilette”, rather than a clergyman counseling a troubled congregant. How can anyone’s pontificating be any cleverer when done with a cup like that?

Stray observation: “In the faith”?

It is said repeatedly (twice, at least) that Larry’s soon-to-be ex-wife wants to remarry “in the faith”. This is a startling turn of phrase, as in my experience, religious Jews do not use that expression. Rather, if you were talking about an observant Jew wanting to remarry according to Jewish law and custom, you would say that she wants to remarry “in the tradition”. “In the faith” is a Catholic expression, not a Jewish one. If it weren’t for the Coens’ background, I would assume this is an inadvertent error. But, since the Coens are Jewish, the incongruous word choice here is probably deliberate.

But why? Here is the fundamental difference between Judaism and traditionalist Christianity: Judaism emphasizes tradition over faith, Christianity emphasizes faith over rules. In fact, in Judaism, to have faith yet not follow the tradition is considered the gravest possible sin — far worse than going through the motions despite having no faith. According to Christian principles, by contrast, faith trumps all — as long as you believe in Jesus Christ as your savior, anything you do will be forgiven. Judaism’s emphasis on tradition has to do with preserving the Jewish community that’s subjected to great forces of assimilation. You may have your doubts, but as long as you keep kosher, observe the Sabbath, go to the synagogue and live near other Jews, you will probably marry “in the faith” and raise your children “in the faith”, despite not actually being a true believer. As long as tradition is preserved, there is always a chance of a non-believer coming back to faith or at least his children doing so. If you can’t be a perfect Jew, at least live according to Jewish law, and actual faith will likely follow — so the Jewish tradition tells us.

Larry’s wife’s desire to “remarry in the faith” symbolizes the erosion of tradition and thus the death of the Jewish community — the beating heart of the Jewish religion. (Notice, by the way, that all the teachers and staff at Danny’s yeshiva are really old; it’s all geriatric instructors and stoned, foul-mouthed youngsters, another sign that Jewish life as we knew at the turn of the twentieth century is going the way of the dodo.) With the close-knit, supportive community gone, religion is reduced to Mrs. Gopnick’s cold formalism and Rabbi Nachter’s narcissistic ramblings.

Now, don’t you want somebody to love?

More from “What Does This Movie Mean?”

Coens’ “Fargo” (1996)

Coens’ “Blood Simple” (1984)

Godfather’s Oranges

Belinsky’s “The Aura”

“Fargo” (TV) Season 2 UFO’s

Kids’ movie rant: 1990 “Beauty and the Beast”

Kids’ movie rant: “Cars 2”


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45 thoughts on “What Does this Movie Mean? “A Serious Man” (2009)

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  3. Now I want to see it again. Great insights!

    • Wow. Who are you??? This may be the most brilliantly insightful synopsis of a film that I’ve ever read. Seriously, THANK YOU…I learned a lot. How can I subscribe to your online posts? Please email me at thecoolguyshow at G mail dot com.

    • I enjoyed this analysis.

      The tension between action and inaction is another central theme. Larry remarks that he didn’t do anything at high tension points in the film. He is passive, allowing life to wash over him as if he is a mere observer. He essentially does the opposite of what Marshak tells Danny.

      When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies, what you gonna do? Find somebody to love. Act. Choose your own happiness. Search within instead of without. Make your own narrative. Be a good boy.

      Larry considers himself a serious man, yet he is incapable of acting on his seriousness. Like the formulae on the chalkboard, Larry’s life is scripted by the formula of his culture and he is incapable of acting off script. In a way, his understanding of religion is as weak as Clive’s understanding of the math behind his physics assignments. Larry’s Lebenswelt is formulaic and fails to consider Larry’s own role in shaping his narrative. Larry is a spectator in his own life.

      About the prologue – there are parallels between the gender roles like male is scientific (Larry, Velvel) and female is ritualistic (Judith, Dora) – but I think the scene is a red herring that allows a shallow view of the film to those who fall for it. If one views the prologue as determining the fate of Larry, it’s clearly one interpretation but it’s not a very satisfying one. If our fates are determined by actions of our ancestors (there’s that action theme again) then why bother with religion in the first place? The cause and effect interpretation is simplistic and arrives at a simplistic interpretation. Larry can’t do anything because his fate is sealed. We know the Coens well enough to know that meaning is often layered in their stories.

      Marshak’s statement flies in the face of this. What are you going to DO? How are you going to act? Take things into your own hands and shape your own narrative. Don’t wait for someone to explain everything to you.

      My mates and I discuss A Serious Man frequently and I enjoy reading others’ thoughts about the film. Good discussion board here.

  4. Hi

    I saw this film recently. A lot of the points you make I think are very valid. However, I tend to disagree with one major point you make which also seems to be accepted by a lot of people on internet comment boards and which I think is a total misinterpretation of the Coen Brothers.

    “The end of the film sees Larry falsify a grade for a bribe, and God’s judgement is IMMEDIATE.”

    Viewing the doctor ringing Larry with bad news and the tornado coming towards the school as God’s punishment is exactly the opposite of what the Coen Brothers are saying, in my opinion. Larry was x-rayed at the start of the film, and obviously the doctor was planning on ringing him anyway with the bad news. This would have happened regardless of whether Larry changed the grade or not. Changing the grade DID NOT lead to the doctor ringing Larry with bad news . The two events happening in the sequence they did are mere coincidence. However, we know from Larry’s quest for meaning in his life that he will view the two things as related.

    A lot of the events that happened to Larry in the film are mere coincidences. He is involved in a car crash the same time as Sy is involved in a car crash, and he feels guilty that he survived while Sy died, as if he had somehow caused Sy’s death. In fact, it’s more likely that Sy caused Larry’s crash. Sy caused traffic to slow while he waited to turn into a driveway; Larry crashed because he wasn’t looking when the cars in front of him had slowed down. It’s never made clear that the slowdown in traffic ahead of Larry was caused by Sy slowing down ahead of them and causing a tailback, but by positioning the two incidents in the way they did the Coens are at least suggesting the possibility of it. So while Larry feels responsible for Sy’s death for no logical reason, it’s more likely that Sy was actually responsible for Larry’s car crash. Larry could not know that, of course, but his tendency is to blame himself for everything and seek meaning in random, unrelated events, a tendency which causes him to believe the opposite of what may actually have happened.

    To view Larry changing the grade at the end as having some causal relationship to him receiving bad news from the doctor and even the tornado coming at the end is to make the mistake Larry has made all throughout the film – to try and impose meaning on unrelated events in an attempt to make sense of the world.

    I think the Coens don’t believe in God, at least not a vengeful Old Testament God, and they are merely satirising how a believer like Larry would interpret two unrelated events – him changing the grade and him getting the bad news about his health. It’s a satire of the neurotic, guilt-ridden mindset that 2,000 years of religious conditioning has given him.

    The prologue at the start foreshadows this. Either the visitor is a dybbuk, and inviting him into the home was the start of the curse, or the visitor was not a dybbuk, and stabbing an innocent man was the start of the curse. But whichever interpretation you make of this – he was a dybbuk; he wasn’t a dybbuk – leads to the exact same conclusion – their descendents have been “cursed”. It’s a catch-22. You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t. What the Coens are saying, I think, is that if you have the tendency to believe in a curse, you will always find evidence to justify that belief.

    • Thanks Niall. It’s incredible to me that Ruth and many other people seemingly take the end as meaning there is a God. We are meant to think that Larry likely will end up believing. But the audience is meant to think that there is no answer. There is no “meaning” of the kind Larry is searching for. There is just stuff happening, mostly suffering. Not that the movie is ‘atheist’ – just that the whole topic of ‘god’ is a kind of sick joke because we don’t and can’t know and it doesn’t help the suffering.

      It is not simply an allegory of Job, it is getting at the real existential message of the original Job author – who didn’t end the story with “where were you when I laid the foundations of the world” – analysis suggests that was just – fittingly – a later ‘tack on’ but a more orthodox priest who wanted the disturbing iconoclasm and brutal truth of the original Job story de-fanged.

      Larry’s diagnosis and the tornado present a question, not an answer. After seeing the whole film, are you really going to be such a pathetic schlemiel and see the tornado as being the answer – who are we to judge or know, there is almighty god in a wind pattern and a cancer diagnosis to poor old Larry? Or is just one more damn thing happening without cause and unpredictably and likely causing more human suffering without any real rationale?

    • I was going to suggest that Larry’s diagnosis was determined before he changed the grade, so it cannot be punishment. However the cat in the box thing suggests that it could have gone either way until the box was opened. Personally I do not believe in gods etc. but accepting the uncertainty principle makes it possible, in the context of the film at least, that his fate wasn’t determined until he changed the grade. Or to look at it in a more fatalistic, deterministic or matrixy way, as far as god was concerned he’d already made the choice to change the grade and so could have given him cancer at any point.

    • Thanks everyone for some really insightful and philosophical points. I love the film and its great to hear how people interpreted it. My opinion is that the Coen Brothers are not trying to make just a single meaning out of the film but multiple. I think all these ideas are valid and explored in the movies.
      The main points I picked up on, is that it’s difficult to give advice to someone when your not experiencing the same circumstances and there is a truly subjective nature to the universe we live in. The main protagonist is looking for an objective answer to his problems without realising a more personal relationship to god or the unknown may help. He tries to understand everything but his own actions. I think the quote at the beginning really sets the tone of what they are exploring – “receive with simplicity everything that happens to you’ Larry is often given messages from characters like the Korean dad like ‘accept the mystery’ However, he is in conflict with the unknown, it troubles him and he doesn’t acknowledge that he has a part to play in the construction of whats happening to him and the meaning of his life – “I didn’t do anything” Hence, inaction can be as damaging as actions if you are repressing and ignoring your own feelings and vision of the world.

  5. Great comments all-round… I guess I’d take the third way between the OP’s reading and Niall’s i.e. there is no way for us or Larry to ‘know’ whether the doctor calling after he’s changed the grade is a sign of God’s judgement or random coincidence. Larry’s essential problem is that he must find meaning, not just in the face of coincidence, but in the face of indeterminacy. That’s why he doesn’t understand that the cat can be both dead and alive at the same time, only the certainty of the mathematics behind the idea.

  6. Just saw the film for the first time tonight…and I’ve enjoyed reading your blog about the meaning and all of the follow up comments. For me, the obvious meaning was made crystal clear in the last scenes: God/religion won’t save you. Simplistic, but that’s what I got from it. I enjoy the Coens’ work–thought provoking.

  7. Interesting analysis, but you fail to address one of the most important parts of the whole movie, THE PROLOGUE, which in my mind is a total summation of the movie and its idea(s).

    You also took elements, like the tea cup, which are a bit too obscure, and decided it had some hidden meaning, and totally missed out on some of the more obvious elements in the film, like the TV antenna, and the closeups of the earpiece (and the portable radio itself). “How does God communicate to us in the world?” asks Rabbi Nachtner. Through mathematics and science (Larry and his brother)? Through pop culture like song lyrics and TV shows? Through natural phenomenon? Through coincidence? You can either believe He does, or He doesn’t. The old man at the beginning of the film is either dead, or he isn’t. You either believe, or you don’t.

    The Judaism, in some ways, is not that important. It’s just the box that holds the ideas. You’re giving too much importance to the box, as colourful as it is. It is a movie about God and faith, and how we come to explain the mysterious in our own ways, rationally or irrationally. It’s not a movie about religion at all.

  8. Remember when Larry is teaching his class about Schrodinger’s Cat? Is the cat dead? Or is the cat not dead? Look at the prologue. What is that story with the dybbuk? Is the man dead? Or is he not dead? The husband says “we are ruined”, because as he admits, he is a “rational man”. The wife is unfazed, because she has faith. Don’t worry, she says. “Good riddance to evil”, as she closes the door.

    Larry tells his Korean student that the examples he gives in class are “just stories”, to help explain. “Even I don’t understand the dead cat.” It’s the uncertainty principle. The Coen’s are using the idea of the uncertainty principle and giving it a Jewish spin, a spin on religion and God and faith. The story of Job. Is God really testing Larry? Or is he just having a really bad month? It depends what you want or choose to believe. Does God speak to us in the world? Or is is all just…?

    • No, no, I get what you are saying. I just disagree with the idea that ambiguity itself is the point of the movie rather than a tool for conveying something else. I’m sorry, but despite the length of your comments, it strikes me as facile.

      • i think is just a Job’s retelling story.
        set in one of the most convoluted ages of humanity.

        also in the end we don’t know if the tornado is a punishment or is just another thing more like in the rest of the movie.

    • Actually, I think your analysis is valid. There were a number of instances like that in the movie. Was the fact that Larry’s car crash occurred at the same time as Sy’s significant or was it just a coincidence?

  9. Niall Byrne – excellent point. Coencidences happen, are interpreted by Larry as having a meaning (“I had a car accident the same time Sy had his? The same instant, for all I know. Is Hashem telling me that Sy Ableman is me, or we are all one or something?”). Niall – you say they definitely don’t have a meaning.

    I’m saying they do and they don’t – both at the same time.

    [My musings on this, my favourite film of all time ever, on my blog – google jeziorki blogspot a serious man.]

  10. Just watched the movie a second time, and I’m so glad to find this blog with all this thoughtfulness, and this timeline of people watching the movie and commenting on it.

    I didn’t see the rabbis as snake-oil salesmen. There were things about them that were irritating, but with their words, they delivered the message that God can’t be understood.

    What -I- saw was that rare portrait of God that’s presented without ego: Larry wants to know what God is up to, and whoever he asks just says there’s nothing to understand. Usually, when you ask people about God, they describe an idealized version of themselves, so for me, there was an unusual sort of purity in the movie (I always see around 100x more optimism in a Coen brothers movie than any critic ever would).

    I do like your point about the last rabbi. He was doing the exact same thing as the kid! Listening to Jefferson Airplane instead of studying. That kid knew all he would ever know about God before he even started to learn.

  11. A second time? This is a movie to see 10, 12 times and still find new meanings and insight. Rabbi Marshak – how is it he knows the names of the members of The Aeroplane? By listening to Danny’s radio? Is he willingly trying to ingratiate himself with the next generation? What does “that kid know about God” – to be a self-centred teen toker? Tough questions that the Coen brothers raise. I guess these things happened to them, to their friends as they were growing up in late-60s Minnesota.

    Of course, we must never contemplate the ending without going back to the beginning – the stetl, the dybbuk. And not forget that the action of this movie was set at the time of the Six Day War.

  12. I too just saw the movie again and started searching to see if anyone had understood the meaning as I did.
    “When The truth is found to be all lies”
    Prologue: the wisdom of the wife by knowing the undeniable reality of the Dybbuk would not waiver in the face of denied reality by the husband.
    The temple, except for the 3rd rabbi, is a statement on all institutions,distorted to protect, with love,the sanctity of the institution. It is reinforced at Sy’s funeral by celebrating the life of the adulterer. Larry’s move from the conformity of the insane into true reality is met with society dragging him back into their comfortable insanity.
    The theme seems consistent through the movie from start to end. The female neighbor asks him how he is enjoying his new freedoms? The only free soul true to himself is his brother, who breaks conformity and thinks freely. He is met by the government because his freedom is an assault on conventional wisdom, not because he won at cards. He won a small amount of money and gave it away, he is not conforming to the conventional illusion that money defined you. He is more interested in the meaning of true reality in the universe and it’s proof through math, which some may say is divine.The Jew hating neighbor passes on his reality to his son as it was passed onto him.
    Hate. Believe what we are taught by our parents,love what they love,hate what they hate. When push comes to shove escape from reality in F Troop, fall into the false comfort of religion but whatever you do don’t take responsibility and see the truth of the Dybbuk right in front of you. I believe the movie is appealing because the truth of our own realities may be lies. IMHO
    You write beautifully Ruth.

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  14. I think the lyrics of the song say are a key message of the movie – “When the truth is found to be lies…” The “truth” is religion, and in the movie the three rabbis represent the erosion of religious meaning in the face of life. The first rabbi is youthful and enthusiastic. He finds the wonder of God in everything. The middle-aged rabbi is not so naive. He accepts the arbitrary, contradictory and unfair nature of life by believing God is mysterious and impenetrable. The third, elderly rabbi has eschewed his role in trying to explain God entirely. It is with him that the lyrics resonate. Each rabbi’s age progressively renders them less willing to wield religion as a vehicle for understanding God. Others have also posted insightful examples of religious hypocrisy and dogma in the movie. In the end, the questions are big. Does it matter whether heretofore “serious” Larry loses faith and changes the grade? Are there consequences? Or are consequences decoupled or even non-existent, God and religion being mere products of our efforts to find meaning in randomness? The answers are relative to what we choose to believe.

  15. Regarding the ending; because the uncertainty principle is so strong for Larry, the ending has to be uncertain. Maybe the tornado hits his son’s school, maybe it doesn’t. It’s as uncertain as the beginning.

  16. There’s some good info here however the crux of what should be said is that this movie is based upon the book of Job and this is a modern telling of that Hebrew bible story. If you know the book of job it communicates life’s hardships without what we see to have valid reasons for. God never gives valid reasons in the book and were left to struggle with the consequences. Jobs family/life was destroyed by a “tornado” directly from God himself as testing rather than punishment. Job is righteous and Larry is righteous and these trials are a test of that. Job never received answers besides God is God. We’re not God so don’t try to think like God. All of the other info posted is a nice summary but not at the heart of what is really being communicated.

  17. Brilliant analysis. However everyone missed something. The brain-in-a-vat scene where Larry’s son is watching TV. That was not random filler. It hit me right away what it meant: it’s a tip of the hat, saying that we likely live in an artificial reality, and the God we think we know may not be the God we thought at all. This is also eluded to earlier by the Shrodigers Cat thought experiment/paradox; It is a scientifically proven fact that atoms exist only in a probability cloud until they are observed, which collapses the wave/cloud into a solid existing matter. This is scientific proof that consciousness drives materialism, and also proof that we live in a simulacrum of sorts, or a virtual synthetic construct of some kind, not very different then the Matrix. Ergo, we are essentially all just brain in vats, and we drive our own reality, literally creating our entire world, one atom at a time. Larry is the brain in a vat, driving his entire reality with his consciousness.

    As I said though, this is a wink, a tip of the hat by the Cohen brothers. a physicist would catch it or an avid science guy on the cutting of modern physics. Modern physics is beginning to prove that consciousness is primary to universe, without consciousness, nothing exists. For those interested in really looking into this do research on the double slit delayed quantum eraser experiment.

    Anyway, I’m not surprised this went unnoticed. I could be wrong but in my experience the Cohen brothers don’t play dice with their films.

    Thanks so much for your analysis, you have a gifted mind, keep up the good work.

    • Sean Maybury on said:

      With the greatest of respect, I think you’re way off in that interpretation. The “brain in a vat” is actually a classic thought experiment in philosophy that ties in with all the other elements of the film pointing to uncertainty, the fact that we can’t ever really know if there’s a god, if there isn’t a god, if there’s meaning in the world or if it’s just random circumstance.

      The thought experiment is to imagine a scenario where a scientist has your brain in a vat and can artificially construct the reality that you’re seeing/experiencing now. If we accept that this is possible in theory then given we don’t know whether we are really experiencing the world for real or simply have our brains in a vat, we can’t ever be sure whether our beliefs are true or not. In short, once you accept this scenario you’re obliged to say that you can’t ever really truly believe in anything.

    • I agree with A-Dizz’s point about our consciousness driving reality – all of the other commenters on here talk about how Larry’s continuous misfortunes are somehow “tests from God”, yet in many cases they are driven by him himself – allowing himself to be pushed around by his wife, being vaguely disinterested/unassertive with his kids (who walk all over him and order him around), not standing up for himself when his wife lover manipulates him etc etc. He lets life happen to him rather than other way round and then wonder why misfortune continually befalls him. As a Jew, he wouldn’t be interested in the Matthew principle (‘to he that hath, more shall be given’), but this is exactly what is happening here. As he refuses to take control of his life, more circumstances come his way to try to force him to be truly conscious of his reality, not just the theory on the blackboard. This could be seen as a ‘test from God’, or it may simply be some kind of law of attraction happening. In many cases we can see that bad events are follow-ons from original failings – for example, had he put his foot down with his wife when she talked about her lover, he wouldn’t then have found himself in the circumstance of paying for the lover’s funeral (not that this was also a circumstance which could have been avoided when it cropped up).

      It could also be argued (for those disagreeing with the idea that phone call is immediate divine punishment for his changing the grade), that although the X-rays were done at the start of the movie, before the bribe was left on his desk, at the same time God (being omniscient) knew that Larry was going to fail the moral test to be put before him, so set his fate a priori. Just as God knew that despite Larry’s free will he was fated to sin, so was his punishment for this sin set in advance.

      What I find fascinating is that the critiques of this film can be sharply divided into those who have God in their cosmology, and those who don’t. Just like the couple in the prologue, whose views about the same experienced events are similarly incompatible.

      And a very enjoyable critique from the OP. It’s at times like this that I love the internet.

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  21. I love this analysis. I felt like the prologue was a clear dramatization of Schrodinger’s Cat. Is the man/demon dead or alive? We don’t know. We can’t be certain. This is kind of a shadow of the question of whether God is real or not, because the presence of demons/devils implies the existence of a God, as well. To me, that prologue is a microcosm of the film as a whole.
    Anyway, great article.

    • Yeah… Well… I’ve done in this blog some ultra-radical pro-quantum mechanical (QM) interpretations (which may seem a rather cold and reductive interpretation of the film) and I’m feeling guilty a little bit 🙂
      But since I read that all of the contributors talk about the prologue only in the sense of “incertitude” QM principles (mark that Heisenberg’s and Scroedinger’s cat are different things, the first one inst just a harmonic analysis inequality (maths) and the latter a rather silly vulgarization of a QM fundament), I decided to give a (my) purely human interpretation to this prologue.
      This interpretation stroke me from the very beginning. Because when a story begins, you don’t know that it will be about that and that (partly QM in or case), so the first scene has to be self-sustainable, as if the film would not continue. That’s a good piece of work: when each segment is self-contained, and when the ensemble means much more than just the union of its parts…

      In my opinion, the 19th century scene of the film, is a play about the couple certitude/incertitude (not ONLY about “incertitude” in itself). And even the whole film is about that !
      The woman HAS to have certitudes, because she is the master organizer of the only fixed point of the family: the home. She embodies the certitude, she’s the goddess, the high priestess of this concept.
      And the man, has to have the virus of the incertitude, because by his ancestral role in the family, he has to face the diverse and dangerous situations from outside this kernel (the home).
      The woman is condemned to certitude, the man, to incertitude, at least when the times are hard, when a decision has to be made, when the family find itself in a forked dramatic situation… And in this scene, they are each of them, in their very roles.

      The mass difference between the kernel and the electron is huge. If instead of an electron one takes a photon, then the difference is monstrous. Even in the quantum world, for an observer placed on a kernel (an observer with a “classical” mind), an electron or photon “passing by” would obey a quantum rule: they would embody the “incertitude”.
      What I’m saying, is that there is already a “scale difference” (a scale incompatibility even) between the women and the man, and this runs thorough all the film, in the same manner as in the prologue…

      The rabbi-dibbuk ? So what ? In quantum terms, the rabbi-dibbuk is a classical observer (from our Newtonian world) observing the kernel of an atom (the woman) and the electron/photon (the man). We got thus 3 qualitatively different scales… and maybe (surely!) many more above and below… The same holds in mathematics, with the different “kinds of infinity” etc etc… There are many many examples of this very the same (mental ???) pattern.
      You wanna call the rabbi-dibbuk “God” or “Devil” ? Do so. In this respect, the man, the woman and the rabbi-dibbuk are mutually “Gods” one to each others, since they “live” in different worlds…

      The tragedy of Larry Gopnik is that he “practices” incertitude as a concept in its each and every day QM lessons, but he’s blind when the has to transgress this concept to another example than pure calculations written on a blackboard ! He desperately seeks an answer going for HIS world: he preys (divine) Lightening to the servants of God as a muzhik would go prey mercy and justice to his boyar…
      Actually, he’s a bad scholar, Professor Larry Gopnik: unable to apply the theory to concrete situation, unable to solve the exercises of the course he teaches !

      By the way, I think this is the clue of the scene when the (dead) lover of his wife brutally forces him to face the “truth”, by mobbing him to the huge pointless full of formulas blackboard. The, he (finally) got an indistinct, blurred revelation (remember the way he plays it, he’s shocked) about the possibility of an ANOTHER world than his (the blackboard). This answer comes from himself, because HE could have been the “serious man” embodied by the “terre à terre” figure of his rival. This rival, this “serious man” (in the parlance of our times 🙂 if I may quote The Dude) is the alter-ego of Larry. He is his anti-particle.

  22. Good review, but I disagree with your assertion that Jews don’t use the term “in the faith.” We do.

    I was not surprised that the rabbis were unable to help Larry. There is no member of the clergy of any religion who would have been able to help him. The best advice would have been for him to refuse to move out, forcing his wife to move to the Jolly Roger instead. And the best advice would have been for him to shut Sy out of his home and his life. Financially, the best advice came from his lawyer; get a separate checking account. Poor Larry was a classic schlemiel.

    I agree that the best advice came, inadvertently, from the oldest rabbi when he quoted Jefferson Airplane. Find somebody to love. Unfortunately, Larry was not in the room to hear it.

    After watching the movie, I reflected on the prologue. I think the old man was also a schlemiel. He helped the man and then was stabbed by the man’s wife. That was how she repaid him. Of course, she was blinded by superstition, as many people are blinded by religion.

    I think the movie was a modern version of the Book of Job. Like Job, Larry was being tested, but, by accepting the bribe to change the grade, he failed the test.

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  24. People, honestly… ( <– that has to be heard with The Dude's (harassed by Walter) intonation …)

    First move:
    take a Quantum Mechanics (QM) book (I give you some hints if you want), and read it well & thoroughly. If you know a bit more than undergraduate maths, this will take you … 1 year. If not, maybe… 3 (?). Don't read vulgarization about QM, Schrodinger's cat, Heisenberg's principle, etc. It's just misleading crap.
    OK ? So… That's the background. And you can't skip it. (sorry)
    [by the way: this is also another kind of "culture crash" 🙂 ]

    Does this mean that you're prepared to understand the picture ? This… the-moust-manyfoldish-versatile-&-profoud chef d'oeuvre ? No. But at least you're prepared to know about what one talks about.

    Now you ask me: "holly patronizing fool, do you think that the Coens did & knew all that when they made the film?"
    And I answer: NO !!
    But at a certain moment of their life, somewhere, during a friendly chat, maybe in a bar or… whatever… someone explained them, gave them the spark of this revelation. Because QM (as well as Linear Algebra, or Complex Analysis…) are true, crystal sparkling revelations for anyone who wants to meet them .
    After this very probable moment of their life, when they got the kernel of the idea, they put things together and doing so, they where sublimely counselled by pros (this is hugely obvious for any public knowing a little bit of QM). They are beautifully smart these two brothers… enough to be able to understand and INTEGRATE this PATTERN into another "system" which is the "human life" (or "human soul").

    To be more specific, this film is actually a kind of a "mental experience" (read about this term in the context of the creation of QM in the '20) in which one replaces the usual QM dichotomy "micro world /macro world" (read it as: quantum perception versus classical (Newtonian) perception) by the dichotomy "micro world /human social perception" (social here meaning: general human interaction).

    In this respect, Larry Gopnick is (in this film) not a QM professor by accident (i.e. could not be a English literature professor, like in all the other American films, Woody Allen's included), but precisely as a hint for the eye of the public. He teaches not "only" physics in general, but precisely QM (making some mistakes on the blackboard when teaching to students, by the way).

    But Larry is just a TEACHER, he is (no more) a creator, a researcher (maybe never been?). This point is important. Remember it please. In this respect, he is no more, not less than the 3 rabbis: the young, the mature & the venerable one… They SHOULD be researchers of the human soul, but they aren't: they are freezed in a posture. They REPEAT what they learned, make light jokes (as all Americans do — and prepare to do — during their speeches), they are good to make diversion, but they don't interact with the person which wants & needs a true discussion.
    Indeed, let me quote a paragraph from wiki about the tradition of "Mitzvah":

    "The opinions of the Talmudic rabbis are divided between those who seek the purpose of the mitzvot and those who do not question them.
    The latter argue that if the reason for each mitzvah could be determined, people might try to achieve what they see as the purpose of the mitzvah, without actually performing the mitzvah itself (lishmah), which would become self-defeating.
    The former believe that if people were to understand the reason and the purpose for each mitzvah, it would actually help them to observe and perform the mitzvah (some mitzvot are given reasons in the Torah)."

    Obviously, what I'm saying is that the 3 rabbis from the film (less the old one, but him too, actually) are from the second category: "those who do not question them".
    What is tragic about Larry is that as an actor of the real "humanic" life, Larry is a researcher, a willing-to-understand person, but in his job, he's perfectly alike the rabbis…


    Since I'm utterly tired to write in English, and since what I've said about this film (that I've seen 17 times (or more) until yet) covers about 0.85 % of what I can and have to say about it, I'll stop now. I say then, as Pierre de Fermat wrote on his book of Arihmetica of Diophantes : « J’ai trouvé une merveilleuse démonstration de cette proposition, mais la marge est trop étroite pour la contenir. » . Meaning: there's a lot to say, but the marge of this page is too small to write everything …

    Before quitting: there are (at least) 2 lines — or streams — in this film:
    – the paradox resulting when one applies a given pattern (QM) to a world to which it is not suited (our human socializing world)
    – the jewish micro-cosmos (just as an example !! but a proper one), with his interactions between tradition (and/or law) and the universal human nature. This is more about a statistical mechanics subject: systems semi-closed (internal order but also interaction with the exterior)

    Au bon entendeur, Salut !!

    PS: sorry to bother, but.. lot of people in the blog used the word "mysterious". Please, don't. A black box filled of void, or of shit or of whatever, is the summit, the peak of "mysteriousness". So what ? Does this adjective bring us any leak of information about the object ? Course not ! That's why the object is "mysterious" !! So… WHY call it like this ? Just keep in mind that there is an object "in discussion" (somewhere out of the corner of your eye! and keep it there at the beginning!) and try to make your best to… describe it. And be prepared (mentally) NOT TO be able to do so. To accept that.
    That's Quantum Mechanics for large systems, people like us, by the way. If you understand what I have said, then you already hold a fraction of quantum thought.

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  28. Lucas Stoten on said:

    I found it interesting that the entire film is really about uncertainty right up until the ending, where it is more or less made clear that God exists and that all of the inscrutable chaos in Gopnik’s life was a kind of test. This leaves me unsure what to really take from the film. The majority of it seems to be showing the viewer how unhelpful it is to search for meaning behind life’s random ups and downs, but the ending changes that somewhat. Perhaps the right interpretation of the ending isn’t that it is saying that we *can* find meaning to life’s chaos, but that we shouldn’t compromise our morals or give into the chaos when we inevitably *can’t*. In that case, the ending is less a contradiction to the rest of the film, and more of an expansion to it – a message that the philosophy present throughout most of the film isn’t sufficient, and can lead to undesirable behaviour.

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