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Why the Yiddish prologue?
The movie opens with a Yiddish-language set-piece. Somewhere in the Old Country, a husband announces to his wife that Traitle Groshkover is coming over for soup. "God has cursed us," she says. Her friend sat shiva for Groshkover when he died three years earlier, so whoever's visiting is surely a dybbuk—a malicious spirit. When he arrives, Groshkover laughs off the accusation, as does the husband: "I, of course, do not believe such things. I am a rational man." But the wife's not having it: She stabs Groshkover with an ice pick.
One interpretation of this scene holds that the husband and wife are Larry's ancestors, and that Larry is being punished for their sin. "The troubles surrounding Larry Gopnik in suburban Minnesota many generations later can only be seen as the revenge of 'Hashem,' " writes Denby. "If that Old Country dybbuk was not God himself, he must have been in God's employ." Salon's Andrew O'Hehir advances the same theory: Maybe "the people in the 1960s story are still paying off the debt incurred by that couple in the Yiddish tale."
But perhaps it's not right to interpret the set piece so genealogically or even to assume that the couple did something wrong. What if the wife were actually a positive foil? Instead of sheepishly appealing to the logical impossibility of ghosts, as her husband does, or passively waiting to see what comes next, as Gopnik would, she takes matters into her own hands. "Good riddance to evil," she says when Groshkover walks out the door, bleeding. Maybe Gopnik would fare better if he had half of that gumption.
What does the ending mean?
None of this is to suggest that A Serious Man isn't primarily about questions and unknowability. It's tempting to see Larry's inaction as the root of his problems, but the Coens ultimately confound that interpretation, too. As soon as Gopnik finally does something—he accepts the student's bribe—his doctor calls with what is clearly bad news (though we're not privy to its precise nature). At the very same moment, a tornado moves in the direction of Danny's Hebrew school. There are two basic ways of interpreting the ending. Either God is punishing Gopnik for taking the bribe, or God will punish Gopnik no matter what he does for reasons beyond our comprehension. Larry can take the bribe or not take the bribe; it doesn't matter. He can no more control the decay of his body than control nature; the universe is too complex to hinge on petty decisions.
Or maybe the ending functions as a comment on Job. In the biblical story, God delivers his lecture "out of the whirlwind," then softens up and gives Job "double what he had before." It's a Hollywood ending. The Coens, indie filmmakers, seem to think a bleak story deserves an equally bleak ending.
Slate V: Dana Stevens critiques Oscar contender A Serious Man.