Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest movie wrestles with God’s sovereignty and man’s free will in this story of a 1960s Jewish physics professor and his world falling apart like the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Larry Gopnik’s wife has fallen in love with a Jewish widower and wants to give him a ritual divorce so she can remarry within the religion, his son is approaching his bar mitzvah while exploring drugs and rock and roll, and Larry’s brother, a loser with a Rain Man-like psychological dysfunction, is living with him sucking the life out of him. In fact, everyone seems to be sucking the life out of Larry, what with all his responsibilities in life. Even a Chinese student with failing grades tries to bribe him and then blackmail him for accepting bribes.
And all throughout the movie, we hear the repeated phrase, mostly from Larry, but also others: “But I didn’t do anything.” It is used in various contexts but often as an excuse for feeling treated unfairly in life by others or God. Larry’s brother is taken in by the cops for gambling, “but I didn’t do anything”: Larry’s wife tells him she wants a divorce, “but I didn’t do anything” he replies, and so on throughout. The point seems to be that we make excuses for not being active in our lives, for not taking responsibility for what happens to us. And the biggest accusation in this story seems to be a religious one, that in our resignation to God being “in control” we become passive agents in a universe that are acted upon – we miss the opportunities of a lifetime because we are immobilized by our worldview or theology.
Larry is portrayed as believing that he is just supposed to be a good boy and bad things won’t happen – but they do – to him. He seems to keep losing everything dear to him from his wife to his reputation, to his lawn, to his job, all because he “goes along” and doesn’t take action in his life. At marriage counseling his too-young rabbi tells him he should just accept this divorce, resigning himself to the fact that God is in control and it’s just a matter of changing his perspective and he’ be able to cope. In other words, an almost Buddhist approach where you do not fight what happens in the world, you change your desires. This religious resignation is shown as being at fault for Larry not really living life. By resigning one’s self to the will of a deity, rather than choosing to act, one misses out on living life, such as the pot smoking libertine hot chick next door, who Larry notices sunbathing (reminiscent of King David on the roof seeing Bathsheba) – or rather, that Larry fantasizes as being a pot smoking libertine, but he never acts upon his fantasies.
A Serious Man brings in the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle as well as Schrodinger’s cat metaphor as a philosophical expression for Larry’s worldview that concludes after explaining a huge chalkboard of mathematics that we can’t possibly know what’s going to happen. Another excuse for “not doing anything.” I think the humanist worldview to this film is that since we can’t know what is going to happen because the future is not determined, then to resign ourselves to God’s will is to not take the responsibility we have for making our own fate and destiny by acting upon our desires. Larry is a passive hero who keeps avoiding responsibility for his life and keeps missing out on really living because he refuses to be the master of his fate and thus becomes the pawn of others.