Prometheus is hardly the topic on anyone’s mind right now; that honor goes to another film. However, in revisiting the Coens’ 2009 release, A Serious Man, I was struck by how much more I got out of a second viewing. This is a densely complex, Book of Job-ian tale from Joel and Ethan Coen that weaves in very bleak humor as much as it questions the values of tradition in Judaism. It also does a much better job answering questions from Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi monster mashup, even if it replaces a mysterious planetoid with 1960’s Minnesotan suburbia.
Let me back up.
To say that Larry Gopnik is a man constantly tested isn’t an understatement; it’s almost a lie. His wife is leaving him with the added bonuses of his home, savings account as well as sole custody of two children. Larry also might not get tenure at the university. Oh and Larry’s brother, Arthur, loafs about his house, squatting for what seems to be an eternity while he finishes writing The Mentaculus, his “probability map of the universe.” And because this all is simply not enough, Larry’s son is a pothead with a penchant for slipping cash out of his wallet, and maybe signing up his father for a steady barrage of bills from the Columbia Record Club. There are moments in A Serious Man that play out, as mentioned earlier, like the Book of Job. At other times, its desolation plunges so deep that we can’t help but laugh at the darkness it shows us. It certainly doesn’t help that Larry is as feckless as they come.
That said, he isn’t spineless enough not to at least ask questions, and Larry has a lot of those. To simply catalogue the barrage of uncertainty Larry’s faces would be a disservice to the sudden avalanche, but the philosophical essence of A Serious Man does beckon attention by way of a lone query: Why? Likewise, Prometheus dances around a similar question, and regardless of Larry’s trivial minutiae in comparison to galactic exploration, to world seeking, there’s nothing less noble about his pursuit for answers.
A great deal has already been said about Ridley Scott’s summer thriller earlier this year, much of which objects to Prometheus’ haphazard and almost derivative third act. To stretch an obvious metaphor, the film is a ship that departs on a noble voyage, yet its discovery is the blackest of coal, quite literally but also thematically. There’s no real payoff. Scott’s ultimate failure in Prometheus isn’t not answering the why’s and wherefore’s of human existence; rather, I think buried under Lindelof and Spaihts’ half-baked mystique lies an intriguing thesis that suggests there is no answer behind humankind’s place in the universe.
It’s a shame then that the film ultimately sweeps that answer under the rug in favor of delivering contrived slasher beats. Run for your lives! Prometheus‘ characters assume they find meaning in science and rules, as does our own Professor Gopnik. Where the former story fails is when its own characters fail, specifically in adhering to their own rigid, supposedly rational economy. A scientist doesn’t remove his helmet when an atmosphere ‘seems’ hospitable. A scientist doesn’t coo at strange new life with an outstretched hand. Above all else, a scientist learns exactly what kind of space mission they’re embarking on before they actually leave.
In his physics lessons, it’s clear Larry follows similar rules and rational principles. yet he receives nothing but disappointment in return. Nudging his television antenna one way fixes the fuzz on channel 4, but now 6 is all blurry. There’s a moment when Larry lectures on the irony of the uncertainty principle, a theory that hints how everything we think we know might not be so. We may never know the answers. Sound familiar? Larry, as any professor of theory might be, is genuinely excited by this concept, but his failing isn’t like the crew of the Prometheus. Larry plays by the rules, even when the obvious shortcut is staring him straight in the face: We may never know the answers.
Once again contrary to Prometheus, when Larry accepts a failing student’s bribe to up his final marks in the grade book, it makes sense. This man is at the end of his wits. He’s served Hashem, listened to sage wisdom, even smoked some pot. Larry’s done everything right, and now, to paraphrase a Romany Malco line, ‘it’s time to try a little wrong, dawg.’
Danny Gopnik is Larry’s son, but his narrative function is that of a double for Larry himself and the choices he makes. After all, the recently bar mitzvah‘ed boy is technically a man now, too. It’s sloppy string theory, but in Danny lies the key. Danny does everything Larry doesn’t, maybe short of smoking some pot. Forget seeking advice from the rabbis; Danny barely chokes his way through the Torah reading, and yet the miscreant who sneaks a radio bud in one hear whilst feigning interest in Hebrew lessons is the one granted permission to see the famed Rabbi Marshak. Rabbi Marshak’s requisite bar mitzvah advice to Danny goes as follows:
And that’s it. A line from Jefferson Airplane. Marshak tells Danny to “be a good boy” before returning his confiscated radio and sending him on his way. All that from the man Larry Gopnik wasn’t important enough to see. Even when we get answers, they’re often not the ones we want much less the ones we understand, and that understanding applies as much to Marshak as it does to Larry’s baked offspring.
I failed to mention that A Serious Man begins with a musty polaroid of a prologue, where a Jewish man invites a family friend, Traitle Groshkover, over for dinner. However, the man’s wife objects on the grounds that Groshkover has long been dead, so when Groshkover does come knocking for soup and hospitality, she plunges an icepick into his chest. Still bleeding, Groshkover walks out into the blistering cold. Was he in fact alive? Or was Groshkover really an evil spirit as the wife suspected? A dybbuk? We’re never told. Rather than fail at giving an impossibly satisfying answer, the Coens would ask questions and let them hang. They’re never met with explanations or elaborations or even the unexpected monster chase, and thank God for that.
We can, right?