Larry Gopnik wears a most peculiar expression on his face. He appears bemused, a man who is gradually learning how silly it is to take life too seriously. He’s a physicist who finds comfort in the black and white world of math where everything is yes or no, true or false, right or wrong. Or, as he puts it to his class, the cat is either alive or it is dead.
Gopnik is the hero of A Serious Man, the latest bit of austere craziness from the Coen brothers. We meet him as he faces enough hardships for three or four Gopniks. He’s being examined and x-rayed by a worried looking physician. His wife is fooling around and wants a divorce. He’s up for tenure, but someone is sending the college letters urging his dismissal. And some guy from the Columbia Record Club keeps calling him and demanding that he pay for Santana’s Abraxas.
More than anything else, Gopnik and his wife and their two teenage children are identified as being Jewish. His son spends his free time learning to recite the Torah in Hebrew – in preparation for his bar mitzvah. And much of the movie is divided into three titled sections corresponding to meetings with three increasingly older and wiser rabbis.
This brought memories flooding back from a time I spent reading about Judaism and Kabala while writing about Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. A major lesson taught by those disciplines – and emphasized here by all three rabbis – is the absolute unfathomable workings of God, the impossibility of even knowing for certain if an occurrence is for good or for evil.
Gopnik is like Job. His is a story of bad things happening to a good man that asks, “Why are the good made to suffer?” By the end, Gopnik, who once used math to prove the certainty of things, fills enormous blackboards – albeit in his dreams – to prove that the universe is ridiculously, even cruelly, uncertain. He probably ends up believing in zombie cats.
He smiles and smirks as he faces the possibility of not being awarded tenure, because he realizes that only God knows if winning tenure is even a good thing or a bad thing for his life. From his perspective, all he can do is view every development as both good and bad, black mixed with white, and keep going.
A Serious Man actually plays like a companion piece to the Coens' Oscar-winning masterpiece, No Country for Old Men. That movie used the character of Anton Chigurh, a coin-flipping killer, to express the randomness of things. Now, they give chaos a spiritual spin. What appears as randomness is really just an enormously complex plan, well beyond our understanding.
Watching a hockey game as I write this, my daughter just asked, “Why are referees always dressed in black and white?” It was one of those weird moments. I’d never thought about it before, but could it be that they wear black and white because such is the nature of the rules they’re enlisted to enforce? A puck either enters the goal or it doesn’t. There are no half-goals.
Larry Gopnik learns that life, unlike sports, is without such clear-cut rules. He has to make a crucial decision about a troubled student. Will he fail the student or will he send him on his way with a passing grade? Then he realizes there is a lot of gray between an A and an F and gives him a C. And then, in a final flourish, he follows it by a minus.