Of the movies I’ve seen in the past year, none have stayed with me more than A Serious Man, and not just because “Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane is such a great song. There’s a wonderful article on Slate that gets to the heart of its story quite concisely. Larry Gopnik, the protagonist, is a man whose misfortune appears out of the blue because he didn’t see it coming. It wasn’t that there was very much concealing going on - he just never looked.
It’s a meditation on a perennial human failing: we never ask until it’s too late, we never fix the bridge until someone falls. Trying to rationalize our own inattentiveness to the important events results in a lot of empty calls to a God whose job isn’t to answer. Larry never tries to figure out the answers to what has gone wrong in his life for himself. “I haven’t done anything!” he says repeatedly throughout the film. This is really the problem in his life. The only times he acts positive at all are in his dream sequences. At all other times, he’s barely reacting, watching his life fall apart. It’s true that it isn’t his fault, but he never tries to put it back together. He hasn’t done anything, and still doesn’t.
This movie made me think about what we use reason for, to explain our world and try to improve it. That’s one of its higher goals at least, but most of our time is spent using our reason to make excuses for why the world is as it is. Larry goes to talk to the three rabbis of his community for some advice about his life, and all he’s told is that what happens is God’s will. “Look to the parking lot,” goes the empty platitude of one. Another tells a pointless story of a dentist who found the Hebrew letters “Help me!” written on the back of a gentile customer’s teeth. What does the dentist do? He couldn’t figure out the mystery, so he returned to his practise as he always had before. How does that help me? asks Larry. How can we understand God’s will? answers the rabbi.
The last rabbi won’t even leave his office to say hello.
Weakness is more common to us than we like to think. So many of us like to believe that we’re in control of our lives, but it’s remarkably easy to mistake stability for control. If there are no disruptions to test whether I control my life, then there’s nothing to prevent me from believing that I control my life. Therefore I control my life. Spelled out as directly as this, the thought process seems utterly ludicrous, but I think it’s more common to a lot of us than we like to think. A person can be very uncomfortable facing how weak they actually might be. It takes fortitude to test yourself.
When Rabbi Marshack, the oldest, most venerable rabbi in the community, finally speaks, he speaks not to Larry, but to his son Danny, who is too high to listen. “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies, what then?” Sometimes control is a fantasy, and hope is all we have. A Serious Man suggests that a happy life might be one that’s just lucky enough to avoid disruption.