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This Review Reveals Minor Details About the Plot.

“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”—Rashi

A Serious Man (2009) on IMDb

Plot Overview

The (Jewish) Co(h)en brothers tailor made a prologue to fit the Jewishness of their subject matter: Circa the 18th/19th c. a Ukrainian peasant carted his geese to market in Lvov. On his way back at night a wheel fell off his tumbrel. Fortunately, a good Samaritan, Reb Groshkivu, came his way and offered assistance. In return for this Mitzvah the peasant invited him to their home for soup. His good wife, how­ever, recognized the Reb Groshkivu as having been deceased—she'd sat shiva for him—so she declares him a dybbuk. We can't tell one way or the other until some­one takes a stab at revealing him.

What this has to do with Jewishness is beyond the scope of my review. The Jews deliver the sacrificial lamb—in this case geese—to the slaughter, then they are met on the road with a live rabbi full of good works who was thought to be dead, and now he's unwanted. Go figure.

Methodology is
important Bloomington, Minnesota, 1967: Jewish physics teacher Prof. Lawrence “Larry” Gopnik lays the mathematical foundation for Schrödinger's uncertainty principle that relegates atomic-size particles to a probability function until observation collapses the function to give us solid data. His famous thought experiment concerned a cat sealed in a hutch with a deteriorating particle that trips a device that will kill the cat once the particle decays. Until the hutch is opened and the cat observed, it is unknown whether the feline is dead or alive, or in some mysterious statistical limbo.

money bagsSouth Korean student Clive Park (David Kang) flunked his midterm exam because he didn't know the math, although he grasped the uncertainty principle well enough. Losing his attempt to persuade the professor to pass him—his scholar­ship depends on it—he leaves the office but an envelope of money remains. If the professor turns it in, he'll be sued by Clyde's father for defamation. If he keeps the money and passes the kid, nobody will be the wiser. The money is mean­while in limbo while they sort out their “culture clash.”

Larry's home is bordered by goyim on both sides. On one side are his macho neighbors who are into guns. They encroach on Larry's property. On the other side is a lonely neglected house­wife. She invites him in to partake of the “new freedoms.” Larry prefers the one over the other. Jews would probably prefer the political pendulum to hover on the progressive side rather than on law and order.

Larry's wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is developing a special friendship with family friend Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed.) Her affections are divided between the two men. Sy to maintain his reputation as a tzadik—a “just man” like Joseph in Matt. 1:18-19 —drives over to visit his deceased wife's grave side. He's stuck against oncoming traffic at a blind curve. Mean­while, is Larry driving also, distracted by Clive on a bicycle. Our high­ways are them­selves a statistical function of who will return unharmed. By the end of the day Judith will know if there's any­one she needs to weep for.


We're going to need to consider Larry's son Danny (Aaron Wolff) and his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus.) To draw a comparison, let's take a passage from George Pelecanos:

“I'm sayin', how did you feel about him? You know, how a man looks at a boy and sizes him up?”

Ramone thought of the times he's seen Asa on the foot­ball field, making half-assed tackles, some­times moving away from the man running with the ball. He thought of Asa entering Ramone's house, not addressing him or Regina directly, not greeting them at all unless he had to. He knew exactly what Rhonda was going for. Some­times you'd look at a boy and see him as a man, and you'd think, He's going to be a tough one, or a strong one, or he's going to be successful in any­thing he does. Some­times you'd look at a young man and think, I'd be proud if he were my son. Asa Johnson was not one of those boys.

“He lacked heart,” said Ramone. “That's about the only thing that comes to mind.” (98)

Prof. Gopnik worked hard providing for and doing for those dependent on him. He was a serious man in that respect. That made it all worth­while in the sense of Jefferson Airplane's “Some­body to Love” that gets a lot of play in this movie. But even if he beats the odds in traffic, there's still the physical exam to consider, with those X–ray results, not to mention inevitable old age if nothing bad happens. All that serious work will be left to Danny and we have some doubts whether he'll be a serious man like his dad. As for his sister, forget her.

(Eccl. 2:17-19) “Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit. Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me. And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity.”

Sy, too, is a serious man and he is also considered a righteous one, a Tzaddik. A lot is expected from such a one. Take for example this piece from William Lashner:

So I tell him, said Rabbinowitz, I say, “Herman, with all your business and such a success and with what you have in the bank, and I know how much it is because I'm your accountant, you still throw money around like a man with no arms.” ... “Be a tzaddik,” I say. “Give a little. Beside, some­one in your tax bracket, you could use the deductions. Give a little, Herman,” I say, “give till it hurts.” So what does he do? He clutches his chest and says, ‘It hurts, it hurts.’

“That Hopfenschmidt, he's always been a chazzer,” said Morris, nodding. “He still has the first dollar he ever stole.”

I say, “Herman, that's not funny. Not funny. So how much can I put you down for? Ten thousand? Frankle, he gave ten thousand last year and you earn twice as much as Frankle.” And Herman says, ‘It hurts, it still hurts.’ I say, “Five then at least. Even Hersch with his one dry cleaning store, he's giving five thousand and you earn ten times as much as Hersch. Think of all the children you'll be helping, Jewish children, who can't afford even a chicken neck on Shabbos.” What does Herman say? ‘It hurts, it hurts.’ I say, “All right, one thousand, but that's the minimum I'll accept” and he says, ‘But you don't understand, Yitzhak, it hurts, it really hurts.’ Next thing I know he falls off his chair. Splat, right on the ground. He was right, it did hurt. He was having a coronary.

“For real?” said Morris.

“Of course. Would I joke about such a thing? He's at Einstein as we speak. As we speak.”

“Some chazzers, they'll do anything to keep from giving.”


... “So as soon as we're finished here, I'm going over to give Herman a visit up at the hospital. Coming so close to his Maker, maybe it will have softened him up. I tell you, Morris, it was a miracle, really. I think now I can get from him the ten.” (351–2)

Sy was serious about helping others. When he's gone, though, and his estate goes into probate, some­one else gets it. (Eccl. 2:20-21) “There­fore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all the labour which I took under the sun. For there is a man whose labour is in wisdom, and in knowledge, and in equity; yet to a man that hath not laboured therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil.”

Back to Larry, he's got serious troubles in his life. Vexatious ones. His disturbing dreams are played out for us on the screen. (Eccl. 2:22-23) “For what hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun? For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night. This is also vanity.”

A series of counselors, rabbis, and lawyers can't give him definitive answers to his troubles. His brother Arthur (Richard Kind) has penned a “probability map of the universe,” called the Mentaculus, but he lacks the social skills for it to do him any good. The card players won't let him in their game any­more, and the “vice squad” has singled him out for persecution. The movie shows us Larry's best option is just to live life to the full, what­ever comes his way. Enjoy what he has, day by day. And this is a man on track to tenure, that's the best even he can do. (Eccl. 2:24-25) “There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God. For who can eat, or who else can hasten here­unto, more than I?”

Production Values

This artsy film, “” was directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. It was written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. It stars Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, and Sari Lennick. Stuhlbarg is amazing as he balances life's improbable sorrows. Despite lack of experience the cast performed flawlessly.

MPAA rated it R for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence. Drawing out all the excruciating detail was a key to its sad humor. The end credits assure us, how­ever, that, “No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture.” The camera work by Roger Deakins was out­standing as usual.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

This movie will appeal more to someone of artistic tastes than to anyone expecting an energizing experience. Of necessity one slips into a melancholy mood sitting through it. It's not big on a Holly­wood happy ending; it's short on resolutions; the loose ends are likely to unravel into fag ends. At its best it's a fresh experience from the Coen brothers for those who like their work. Technically, it's well made and will convey an ethnic experience.

Movie Ratings

Action Factor: Weak action scenes Suitability For Children: Not Suitable for Children of Any Age Special effects: Well done special effects Video Occasion: Better than watching TV Suspense: A few suspenseful moments Overall movie rating: Five stars out of five.

Works Cited

Scripture quoted from the King James Version. Pub. 1611. Rev. 1769. Software.

Lashner, William. Veritas. New York: ReganBooks, 1997. Print.

Pelecanos, George. The Night Gardener. New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 2006, 2009. Print.