“What’s going on?” Such a simple and rudimentary yet driving question is at the heart of the Coen Brothers’ 2009 Academy Award nominated film, “A Serious Man.” The film stars Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik, a Midwestern physics teacher whose life rapidly unfolds beyond his control over the course of a few uncontrollable events.
As YouTuber The Nerdwriter’s new video points out, this fundamental query is actually “a reflexive and sort of stupid question.” At the same time, it provides the impetus for one of Joel and Ethan Coen’s most fascinating films. Nerdwriter’s eight-minute video essay analyzes the complex film, breaking it down into a comprehensible structure and plot, asserting that “each of these situations [those that plague Larry] compound and unfold into one another with surgical precision.” They might be easier to deal with, if not for the fact that “Larry’s inaction, his constant refrain of, ‘I haven’t done anything’” is to blame for most of his problems.”
At one point, The Nerdwriter compares “A Serious Man” to “Fargo,” which is arguably one of the Coen Brothers’ most famous films. Yes, they have “True Grit” and “No Country for Old Man” and “O Brother, Where are Thou?” But everything Coen seems to come back to “Fargo,” so the comparison is apt. How does it differ?
The video essay goes on to assert that, “This film questions the persuasiveness of every interpretive device.” Everything is subjective. Everything is malleable. “Interpretation is how we nail down the world around us.” Nerdwriter states it more clearly when it professes that “A Serious Man” is [the Coen Brothers’] most explicit account of a bleak but unflinching philosophy, one that remains skeptical about the things we believe film, story, and interpretation can do.[It understands that the big philosophical truths about human life are devastatingly simple; there is no God. There is no objective or cosmic purpose for us.” Interpretation of the human situation is relatively simple and apparent. It doesn’t require very observant or astute minds to figure out what our lot in life is. As such, “only when the reflexive and sort of stupid questions are dropped can the better questions be asked.
This interpretation might sound fatalistic, very much a glass half full reading of the film, but there’s ample room to disagree. Engaging as the Coen Brothers filmography is, “A Serous Man” left a lot more open to interpretation than their pictures typically do. Such an in depth reading of it, especially concerning the Fyvush Finkel introduction, is well worth the time of any Coen Brothers fan, as well as anyone perplexed by “A Serious Man” and the cryptic message buried within it.
Check out the full video essay below.