Serious times calls for a serious man! Or does it? When life turns out to be far from the moggy’s meow we have to ask if demanding careful consideration of each situation is in fact the right course of action. This mysterious movie opens with a quote from bible scholar Rashi: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you”. But then attempts to rationalize life’s problems using quantum physics via the hypothetical Schrödinger’s Cat paradox. Quite a conflicting stance given the movie focuses on one man’s unprovoked mid-life crisis that resembles a modern-day parable of Job. This peculiar picture is matinee magic that couples earnest undertones with subtle humor brilliantly creating an intense captivating seriocomedy. That said, this movie is steeped in Jewish kinship and arcana so it can be a bit challenging to follow, especially early on. Though if you can get through the first five minutes of the antiquated religious fable (all in Yiddish!) then this telling tale reveals itself to be well-worth the watch. But be advised, an incongruent theme runs throughout whereby the loop in this movie never really closes, which is satisfying and dissatisfying at the same time. Thus encouraging viewers to keep an open mind – questioning rather than fixating on the answer; a filmmaking method that is right up my alley (e.g. reflective functioning). This is a Coen Brothers film – say no more! These amazing American moviemakers constantly produce Hollywood gold, having won multiple Oscars for a bevy of incredible movies including Fargo, and No Country for Old Men. They are also responsible for crafting the refreshing 1998 cult classic (albeit ridiculous) stoner movie The Big Lebowski, which I love (mentions of ‘sitting Shiva’ in A Serious Man had John Goodman’s character popping to mind – ‘I don’t roll on Shabbos!’).
Set in conservative small-town Minnesota in 1967, where the hippie ‘free love’ movement spreading across the country at the time hadn’t quite taken hold. The entire story hinges on low-key Larry Gopnik (fabulously played by Broadway Actor Michael Stuhlbarg), an unassuming passive theoretical physics professor whose constant existence suddenly spins out of control into unharnessed motion that he can neither predict nor constrain. All at once Larry’s troubles become insurmountable. Under his roof he needs to contend with his physical and mental well-being, with wife Judith (Sari Lennick) insisting on a divorce because she’s in-love with someone else. His coming-of-age pot smoking son Danny (Aaron Wolff) distracted from his upcoming bar mitzvah celebration by Jefferson Airplane song lyrics Don’t You Want Somebody… among other things. His snappy complaining teenage daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) angling to get a nose job. As well as his aging underachieving live-in older brother Arthur (Richard Kind) who is not only unhealthy but unemployed. Inside the house Larry’s problems are bad enough, though even more trouble lurks on the other side of the door (job hassles, neighbor issues…). Out of desperation Larry, who is not overly religious, seeks the sage advice of three rabbis to try to understand why his once orderly life has suddenly fallen apart and what he should do about it. In short, Larry wants more than ‘somebody to love’, he wants answers to incomprehensible questions. In his own words, he has ‘done nothing wrong’, yet somehow his now dismal life parallels the sad song that keeps running throughout the narrative; ‘When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies’ – Larry’s problem exactly since nothing is how it once seemed.
As a serious man of science Larry attempts to apply Noble Prize-winning Physicist Edwin Schrödinger’s mathematical reasoning to solve his problems (Schrödinger ‘s Cat). This pop-culture favorite is a thought-experiment based on quantum mechanics that envisages the incarceration of a cat in a box with a flask emitting radioactive poison, which, as time passes, may or may not have killed the cat. Until the box is opened this quantum system of mixed states deems the cat to be both alive and dead until verified. Thus this is the paradox as the feline cannot be both [alive and dead] at the same time. Just like the oxymoron in Larry’s life; it cannot be simultaneously in-order and out-of-order. In science-speak one miscalculation can lead to endless failure. Much like Pandora’s Box, once unlatched there’s no closing it. An enigma that hearkens back to the opening sentiment of the movie; how best to handle life’s unfortunate mishaps? Which brings us to the take-away message of this film.
But before we get to that I want to make note of the dramatic inclusion of ‘Dream Theater’ this movie employs. Larry has three vivid dreams and until he awakes viewers do not know if such occurrences are happening in his real-life or not. Of course the directors seem to include the number 3 several times (3 rabbis, 3 dreams, 3 main problems – family, work, health…), which I am sure is infused with symbolism (e.g. Father, Son, Holy Ghost…), but since I’m not completely up to speed on the Jewish faith I will leave the embedded significance of this number alone. However, I can speak to the significance of dreams. Sigmund Freud (founding father of psychoanalysis) believed dreams to be unconscious representations of unfulfilled wishes in our conscious lives (aka hidden emotions and desires); a view most in the field still adhere to. Similarly, Carl Jung (psychiatrist/psychoanalyst) saw dreams as the psyche’s mechanism to communicate important details to the self in an effort to uncover what’s really going on. That said, the jury is still out on the exact interpretation of dream imagery. For example, some dream-interpreters contend that if you dream of someone you haven’t seen in a long time it means they are thinking of you. Perhaps this is true, but until empirical evidence can back it up such meticulous explanations of detailed snooze-time fantasies are just supposition with dream-content remaining a mystery. That said, one thing most professionals agree on is that dreams like sleep appear to be essential; research in neuroscience suggests that dreams may serve two important functions. First, dream-sleep heals and helps the mind to regulate emotions and stressful elements of life. Second, dreams are credited with enhancing problem-solving skills and creativity. After all Paul McCartney has publicly stated his hit Beatles song ‘Yesterday’ (often referred to as the greatest song of the 20th century) came to him in a dream. Wow! Larry’s dreams are clearly not that abundant. So then what is the life lesson this thought-provoking flick is trying to teach us?
Well it is not about interpreting signs, or dreams, or math, or rational reasoning. No. But it is about being asleep in life and when we tend to wake-up and seek its meaning. Here’s the thing – we don’t search for reasons to explain why good things happen to us. Maybe because we feel we deserve it or because we feel entitled. In contrast, the only time individuals really go on soul-searching journeys is when things go terribly wrong. Especially when it comes to life altering events, notably health scares, career crisis, and especially relationship break-ups. This is because losing a romantic partner is so severely emotionally devastating, and it’s much worse for the person being abandoned since they have to try harder to become whole again. It’s not easy to reclaim the part of the self that one so eagerly hands over to another person in the early stages of a relationship; a particularly grueling task for those individuals who were/are really all-in. Good-fortune vs. Misfortune: Life is like the weather – we get our days in the sun along with dark clouds, and despite predictions we hope for rays and pray ominous twisters miss our house. That’s life. Ambiguous at best, which is why a positive perspective helps. Though keep in mind it’s always up to us to decide if we are awake or asleep in our lives, alive or dead. Meow. I think the Coen Brothers nailed it a decade earlier in their epic film – The Big Lebowski. Things go wrong all the time and when they do maybe instead of trying to be so grown-up and seriously adult about it all we should just say, “F**k it Dude. Let’s go bowling.” In short, life is a series of gutters and strikes – so let’s just roll with it – in style!
P.S. Like this film’s main character Larry Gopnik; Academics, including myself, appreciate precision and certainty but it’s the unknown that intrigues us the most. That’s why research never ends. Speaking of which I have been to Minnesota several times for this reason and found the state to have very lovely qualities indeed, conventional or not.