NOTE: This spoiler was sent in by Courtney who says,"A Serious Man is a Coen brothers film that has more in common with No Country for Old Men than Burn After Reading. Set in 1967, the film details the unraveling of Jewish physics professor Larry Gopnik’s life and his fruitless search for answers. It is a comedy, but of the blackest sort. Throughout the film, Larry is rarely allowed to get a word in edgewise and is often very confused about why terrible things are happening to him when he has always considered himself to be a serious and upstanding man. The reasons behind many of Larry’s problems are never clarified for the audience either, thus adding to the understanding that life is mysterious."
The film begins with a short prologue set in the past. It is a cold winter’s night in an Eastern European shtetl and a wife welcomes her husband home. He is late and while she chips away at ice in a bucket, he tells her how a wheel fell off his cart but he was helped by a neighbor and family friend who he has invited to the house for soup. The wife becomes very upset because she believes that this family friend died several years ago and that it was his wandering spirit or dybbuk that now approaches the house. The elderly man appears at the door, but fearing that the family has been cursed by his presence, the wife stabs him with the ice chipper. At first, nothing happens to the old man and the husband begins to think that he is truly a dybbuk. Suddenly, blood begins to appear around the wound and the man stumbles outside. The wife believes that she has rid her house of an evil spirit, but the husband is devastated because he believes that they are now ruined. The body will be found tomorrow, he says, but the audience never learns if this is in fact the case. The audience never learns if the visitor was a dybbuk or not.
The film jumps to 1967 and we see Larry at the doctor’s office getting a physical exam and some x-rays. His son, Danny, is in Hebrew school but is listening to Jefferson Airplane on his portable radio instead of paying attention. Danny removes a $20 bill from his pocket and tries to get the attention of a boy seated nearby, but instead the teacher discovers the radio and confiscates it along with the money. On the bus home, Danny tells his friends that the money was for Fagle, the class bully, who sold Danny some pot. If Danny doesn’t pay up soon, Fagle will beat him. Danny had stolen the money from his sister Sarah, who in turn had stolen it from Larry’s wallet. The children are demanding and selfish. The conflict between siblings about the money is constant in the background throughout the film as each sibling threatens to tell on the other. The parents, Larry and Judith, never figure out what is going on between their kids and Danny is often seen running from Fagle in the neighborhood.
Larry is a physics professor on the verge of getting tenure. After class, he is met by a South Korean student named Clive Park who demands a higher grade on the midterm. Larry refuses and Clive walks off but not before leaving an envelope full of money behind. Larry goes home where he sees that his intimidating gentile neighbor is once again mowing part of Larry’s lawn. The neighbor, Brandt, plans on building a shed in the backyard despite Larry’s objection that the building will be partly on his property. Larry’s home life disintegrates further as the family is annoyed by the presence of Larry’s brother Arthur. Arthur has no home, family or job and spends his days working out strange mathematical formulas in a notebook that help him win at gambling, despite the fact that he will be harassed by the police for his gambling activities. He is also constantly in the bathroom, much to Sarah’s annoyance. After dinner, Judith informs Larry that she has grown close to widower Sy Ableman and wants a divorce, specifically a get or Jewish ritual divorce, so that they can be remarried in the faith.
Larry’s troubles escalate at work as well. He confronts Clive about the bribe, who responds in riddles and admits nothing. A man from the Colombia Record Club, Dutton, calls repeatedly demanding payment despite the fact that Larry never enrolled (it was likely Danny). In addition, Larry’s tenure is in jeopardy because someone is sending anonymous defamatory letters to the committee. Larry suspects Clive at first, but the committee head says that the letters were written by a native English speaker. Later at home, Larry tries to fix the antennae on the roof so that his son can watch F-Troop without static when he sees his neighbor Mrs. Samsky sunbathing nude in her backyard. This sight causes Larry to fall off the roof and he is next seen recovering on a cot in the living room. Clive’s father also appears at Larry’s door and threatens to sue Larry for defamation if Larry accuses Clive of bribery or for taking a bribe if Larry doesn’t change the grade. Larry is also visited by Sy, who offers him wine, a hug and some meaningless platitudes much to Larry’s inexpressible frustration. Judith later arranges a meeting between the three at a local diner where her and Sy ask Larry to move out of the house and into a seedy hotel called the Jolly Roger. When Larry says that it would make more sense for Judith to move in with Sy, both act extremely offended so Larry heads for the hotel with Arthur.
Larry’s problems continue to escalate. More letters are sent to the tenure committee defaming him, Dutton from the record company continues to harass him, and his legal bills are pilling up. Larry is then involved in a car accident and has to pay to have the car fixed. Larry’s accident happens at the same time as Sy’s, who is killed. Sy’s death brings Larry home, though his wife insists that Larry pay for Sy’s funeral because Sy’s estate is in probate. Larry watches his wife cry at Sy’s funeral and while everyone sits shiva at his house, the police arrive looking for Arthur. They warn Larry that Arthur has been gambling and will be arrested if he continues. Arthur confesses that he has won a lot of money and that he’s given the cash to Danny, who never explains what he’s done with it. This infuriates Sarah, who says that Danny has been buying more than records. Larry later seeks refuge next door with Mrs. Samsky. The two smoke a joint but are interrupted by sirens. Arthur has been arrested for solicitation and sodomy Arthur says that he only went into the bar for a drink even though Larry knows that his brother doesn’t drink. Larry then meets with his attorney about the divorce and his property dispute with Brandt. Judith has cleaned out the account, and the lawyer advises Larry to open up a new account in his own name and deposit his checks there. Another lawyer, Saul, arrives with good news about the property dispute he thinks that there is a solution, but before he can explain he has a heart attack and dies.
Larry finds all of these events to be perplexing and turns to his faith for answers. The film is loosely structured around his visit with three rabbis, each more senior than the last. The first rabbi is very young and advises Larry to see the world with fresh eyes and that his problems are an expression of God’s will. The second rabbi has a nicer office, drinks tea and tells Larry a long story about a dentist who finds a message engraved on the back of a patient’s teeth. It is a plea for help. The dentist goes crazy trying t figure out what the message means and eventually comes to the rabbi for help. The rabbi stops the story at this point, and Larry has to ask him what happened. The rabbi doesn’t know why the outcome is important, and Larry says that it sounds like the rabbi doesn’t really know anything. The rabbi replies that he told the dentist to help people as a general rule and the dentist went back to his normal life. Larry is frustrated by this story because he doesn’t understand how it applies to his situation. He asks why God would make him question things without any answers. The rabbi offers platitudes. Larry finally attempts to meet with the senior rabbi, Marshak. Marshak is a little old man who sits at the back of a very big office. Larry pleads with the secretary, stating that his life is in tatters and that he has always tried to be a serious man. The secretary has a quick word with the rabbi who replies that he is too busy thinking to help and Larry is turned away.
Arthur, who is still living with Larry at the Jolly Roger, has a breakdown one night and runs from the room crying. Arthur says that God has given Larry a job, a family and home while Arthur has nothing. Larry says that this isn’t true, that sometimes people have to help themselves. We then see Larry drive Arthur to the Canadian border where he gives Arthur Clive’s bribe money and sends him across a lake in a canoe to freedom. Suddenly, Arthur is shot by Brandt who tells his son Mitch to shoot Larry. Larry wakes up and we realize that this is a dream. Arthur is still crying in bed.
Larry’s life begins to turn around at Danny’s bar mitzvah. Danny is high but no one notices and during the ceremony, Judith apologizes for their situation, snuggles into Larry and reveals that Sy had so much respect for Larry that he wrote letters to the tenure committee (!). After the ceremony, Danny is given a private audience with Marshak who quotes Jefferson Airplane to the boy (“Somebody to Love”) and returns the radio and $20. At the office, the tenure committee head visits Larry and informs him unofficially that he has secured tenure. Larry then opens a bill from his lawyer and sees that it is for $3000. He takes out his gradebook and erases Clive’s F, replacing it with a C. He looks like he is about to change his mind when the phone rings. It is Larry’s doctor who asks that Larry come to the office right away to discuss the results of the x-rays. He refuses to elaborate on the phone, implying that Larry is seriously ill. The film jumps to the final scene at Danny’s school. A tornado is heading towards the building and the children are sent outside so that they can be herded into the basement. The teacher can’t seem to open the door, and Danny approaches his bully in the parking lot with the intent of finally paying him the $20. However, he looks up just in time to see the tornado bearing down on all the kids in the open parking lot and the screen fades to black.
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