“There are things that are so serious that you can only joke about them.”
― Werner Heisenberg
Larry Gopnik is a modern day Job, a terminal schlemiel. His life is falling apart at the menopausal behest of some cosmic fugue. His world is flat (geographically and spiritually; this is the Midwest) and his wife is leaving him for Sy Ableman. He cannot seem to grasp or respond to anything that is happening to him, except in a lucid dream-world where his brother-in-law gets his head blown to pieces and he is nonchalantly fucked by the neighbour. Larry is paying out the ass for everything (Bar Mitsvahs, nose jobs, funerals, lawyers, car accidents) and he is reaching the kind of peaceful crisis that is not a breakdown, or even an epiphany; nothing quite so helpful.
He seeks the help of three Rabbis, two of whom are not much help. The third will not see him. He does not get to ask him the questions that must be asked, and even if he does the answers are not the ones he wanted. He teaches the Uncertainty Principle. We begin to see what is being hinted at. A Serious Man unfolds in the heightened period just before a significant anxiety attack. It is the slow unravelling of a man’s belief in himself, in the world, in his own goodness and, above all, in his own Jewishness. He climbs onto the roof and attempts to rearrange his antenna. The reception never gets any clearer. He only finds his naked sunbathing neighbour, all tits and no clarity. More than a Job, Larry is a modern-day Candide; a hero, such as he is, who has no capacity for action, or non-action; no response, either good or bad, even in the face of terribleness and blankness. And if he did, would it matter?
Clive doesn’t realise that his physics mid-term ‘is all about the mathematics’, and not just about a cat in a box. The mathematics involved, he declares, is very difficult. Very difficult. He can understand the allegories necessary to explain physics; it’s the particulars that get him. The cat is both alive and dead, probably, or it is alive and it is not alive, or it is probably neither. He wants a passing grade. He leaves an envelope full of money for Larry. Later in the film, Larry and Sy Ableman both experience severe car crashes, ‘perhaps at the the very same instant.’ Larry lives, Ableman dies. Cats in boxes.
At the behest of the Rabbi, Larry tries to use his blackmail money for good, to help others at least in a dream (it ends badly). And in the close, Larry finally takes some kind of action. Whether it is good, or it is bad, who can tell? A tornado approaches his son’s school. Larry receives bad news from his doctor. It doesn’t matter if you’re good. It doesn’t matter if you’re bad.
There is a dybbuk at the door, but Larry does not have a knife.