A Serious Man

serious-chalkI decided to make this the next script [in my survey of the Coen Brothers] for the immaculately simple reason that I’ve never seen the movie. As much as possible, I love to read a script before I see the movie. Of the remaining ten scripts (1) I need to read in order to complete my self-directed Coen Brothers course, I have not seen:

1. A Serious Man
2. O Brother
3. The Man Who Wasn’t There
4. The Ladykillers

Of these, A Serious Man seemed to be the one I would like the best… and so it was chosen.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) The Coens introduce their story in a fairly straightforward expository way. [Naturally, I’m not counting “the fable” that takes up the first eight pages of the script. We’ll talk about what those eight pages mean later in the review.] I was surprised by the early exposition and by how small of an attempt the Coens made to disguise it. From page 13:

The doctor examines his file. He absently taps a cigarette out of a pack and lights up. He
nods as he smokes, looking at the file.

Doctor
Well, I—sorry.

He holds the pack toward Larry.

Larry
No thanks.

Doctor
Well, you’re in good health. How’re Judith and the kids?

Larry
Good. Everyone’s good. You know.

The doctor takes a long suck.

Doctor
Good. Daniel must be—what? About to be bar mitzvah?

Larry
Two weeks.

Doctor
Well, mazel tov. They grow up fast, don’t they?

From this brief interaction with his doctor, we now know that Larry is Jewish, and that he has a wife and two kids. We also know he appears to be in decent health, including not being a smoker [an actual achievement considering the time period].

About the only subtext in this exchange centers on the way Larry talks about his family:

Larry
Good. Everyone’s good. You know.

From this we can derive that either, Larry is not knowledgeable enough about his family to engage in small talk about their exploits, or he is a very private person. The “you know” implies [to me] that he really just isn’t all that knowledgeable.

This isn’t the best example of the kind of dialogue the Brothers are capable of, but it’s forgivable because it’s short enough to keep from distracting a reader’s attention.

The next scene we’ll look at runs from pages 27-29. It is MUCH better than the first passage at demonstrating what it is we mean when we talk about the Brothers and their talent for writing dialogue:

The clink of teaspoon against china as Larry stirs his tea.

Judith enters.

Judith
Honey.

Larry
(absent)
Honey.

Judith
Did you talk to Sy?

Larry
(still absent)
Sy?—Sy Ableman!—That’s right, he called, but I—

Judith
You didn’t talk to him.

Larry
No, I—

Judith
You know the problems you and I have been having.

Sympathetic, but still absent:

Larry
Mm.

Judith
Well, Sy and I have become very close.

This brings Larry’s head up. He focuses on Judith, puzzled. She elaborates:

. . . In short: I think it’s time to start talking about a divorce.

Larry stares at her. A long beat.

At length, trying to digest:

Larry
. . . Sy Ableman!

Judith
This is not about Sy.

Larry
You mentioned Sy!

Judith
Don’t twist my words. We—
Larry
A divorce—what have I done! I haven’t done anything—
What have I done!

Judith
Larry, don’t be a child. You haven’t “done” anything. I
haven’t “done” anything.

Larry
Yes! Yes! We haven’t done anything! And I—I’m
probably about to get tenure!

Judith
Nevertheless, there have been problems. As you know.

Larry
Well—

Judith
And things have changed. And then—Sy Ableman. Sy has
come into my life. And now—

Larry
Come into your—what does that mean?! You, you, you,
you barely know him!

Judith
We’ve known the Ablemans for fifteen years.

Larry
Yes, but you—you said we hadn’t done anything!

Judith suddenly is stony:

Judith
I haven’t done anything. This is not some flashy fling.
This is not about woopsy-doopsy.

Larry stares at her.

Larry
. . . Sy Ableman!

[Omitted.]

Judith
Look, I didn’t know any other way of breaking it to you.
Except to tell you. And treat you like an adult. Is that so
wrong?

This scene introduces us to a lot of exposition concerning the poor state of Judith and Larry’s marriage. The reason it doesn’t grate is because it hides the exposition in the subtext about the way in which Judith treats Larry. She concludes this assault on Larry by stating, explicitly, that she is treating him “like an adult”. And yet, every construction in her dialogue implies the opposite. This is the way to use subtext to manage exposition.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

I want to spend an extra few minutes discussing this passage because it demonstrates, very succinctly, a few of the ideas I have been developing in my most recent series on dialogue. Foremost among these is the power grab perpetrated by Judith. She employs three techniques to gain power and “win” this exchange.

1. She cuts Larry off.

She does this immediately after initiating the conversation. Her point in doing this is to establish that she intends to engage in a confrontation, and she intends to be the boss of the direction the confrontation takes. The subtext here is; pay attention and talk about what I want to talk about… or else.

2. She implicates him in her opinion.

The line that does this, specifically, is the following:

Judith
You know the problems you and I have been having.

If Larry allows this line to stand without disputing it, then Judith has gotten Larry to admit that her opinion about the problems with their marriage is valid. Judith will have scored a conversational point. What is Larry’s response?

Sympathetic, but still absent:

Larry
Mm.

He doesn’t commit to the “yes”, but Judith’s construction is designed such that anything short of outright denial is a yes. Larry has just agreed that HE THINKS he and Judith have problems.

The last thing she does is:

3. Dramatically understate her responsibility to Larry.

According to Judith:

Judith
Well, Sy and I have become very close.

And yet when Larry presses her about what this means, she says:

Judith
This is not about Sy.

The fact that it is, most emphatically, about Sy escapes her. Larry calls her out:

Larry
You mentioned Sy!

But you see how he adopts her manner of understating Judith’s culpability. Of course, the line is written to be funny, BUT THE REASON it is funny is because of the symmetry between Larry’s understatement of Judith’s marital crimes, and Judith’s own understatement of those crimes.

Judith parries with a delicious failure to see the world accurately:

Judith
Don’t twist my words. We—

In fact, this is the opposite of what Larry’s doing. He is mimicking her way of talking about adultery as though it were a trip to the market. The cruelties in Judith’s actions are too much, the Coen’s recognize it, so they allow Larry a conversational counterpunch. He interrupts Judith with:

Larry
A divorce—what have I done! I haven’t done anything—
What have I done!

The least forceful counterpunch in the history of conversation. Instead of raking Judith over the coals of her indiscretion, he protests that a divorce doesn’t make sense because he hasn’t been cheating on her. Larry, in this exchange, loses this [and all future] battle[s] about the divorce he might have with his wife. She has conversationally knocked him out for the rest of the story.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

This script is another of those you should definitely read if you struggle with how to hide your exposition:

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) We’ve already talked at length about one major subtextual strand which permeates everything said to Larry.

No one treats him with the respect normally paid to an adult.

You’ll find this strand in the speech of his family members, his students, his spiritual leaders, and his co-workers. Look what his son does to him while he is at his lawyer’s office making plans for his divorce:

A secretary sticks her head in.

Secretary
A call for Mr. Gopnik. Danny. At home.

Larry
Danny?!

Don
You can take it here.

Secretary
Oh-eight-oh-nine.

Larry punches a button on a row of four on the conference-room telephone.

asm2Larry
Danny?!

Voice
Dad?

Larry
Are you all right? Are you all—is everything—

Voice
F Troop is fuzzy.

Larry
. . . What?

Voice
F Troop is still fuzzy.

Larry stares.

Don
Everything okay?

When I spoke about the treatment Larry receives from the other characters in his script during the previous part of this review, I claimed that those characters didn’t treat him with the usual amount of respect due a human male his age with his degree of competency. It would be fair to say the characters talk to [and about] Larry Gopnik as though he were not:

A Serious Man.

I could cite a dozen more examples to prove this, but there is no need. Read the script, or watch the movie. It’s obvious what the Brothers were trying to do. It’s also pretty brilliant.

10 out of 10 points.

Part C) All the characters in this script are clearly differentiated. The character voices work well and make this script funny and easy to read. That said, the way the Brothers achieve such precise individuation is by following the number one tip on how to write great dialogue provided by professors and internet screenwriting mavens everywhere. In addition to being the number one tip, it’s also the easiest tip to follow– of all existing dialogue tips.

If you haven’t seen this tip in successful repeated application before now, then see this movie or read this script. It’s like your own personal dialogue writing semester crammed into a single two hour class—one that you’ll actually enjoy taking. What they do is:

Give each character a personal dialogue trinket.

They’ve designed the trinkets so that they are unique to specific characters. In A Serious Man, almost everyone gets their own dialogue baubles:

1. Danny has “F Troop”.
2. Sarah has “The Hole” and bathroom occupancy.
3. Arthur has bathroom occupancy and “The Mentaculus”.
4. Judith has the divorce plans. She scolds Larry.
5. Sy says “aw” for the “or” sound. He also has the divorce plans. He coddles Larry.
6. Larry asks EVERYONE questions but never gets ANY answers.

This is inspired use of an easy to master technique. If you’ve not yet made this technique part of your screenwriter’s toolkit, read this script, study how the Brothers do what they do, and then make the technique your own.

10 out of 10 points.

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

This is, without a doubt, the oddest first ten pages I’ve ever read in my five years of reading screenplays. The Jewish “fable” which opens the script is bizarre. The Coens in their infinite [and misanthropic?] playfulness claim that the fable has no point. Unfortunately, that leaves me with the task of giving the Coens a score when [essentially] they are telling me the thing I mean to be scoring was intentionally designed to be a colossal waste of my time. Me being me, I feel like I have to question the truthfulness of their claim.

Do the first eight pages of this script imply anything about the regular story which follows?

Let’s pull out a couple of quotes before we attempt to summarize “the plot” of this fable. The first quote comes from page 5:

Man
I assure you, Reb Groshkover, it’s nothing personal; she
heard a story you had died, three years ago, at Pesel
Bunim’s house. This is why she think you are a dybbuk; I,
of course, do not believe in such things. I am a rational
man.

The next from page 7:

Reb Groshkover
Yes, what have you done?

He looks at the husband.

. . . I ask you, Velvel, as a rational man: which of us is
possessed?

I don’t think it is much of a stretch to say “a rational man” in this fable is a substitute for “a serious man” in the regular story.

Next we will turn to Velvel’s wife to see what she has to say. From page 2:

Wife
God has cursed us.

And, lastly, from page 8:

Man
Dear wife. We are ruined. Tomorrow they will discover
the body. All is lost.

Wife
Nonsense, Velvel.

She walks to the door. . .

Blessed is the Lord. Good riddance to evil.

I take from this that God has cursed the world with evil, but those who fight against it are blessed [whether they win or not].

As for whether or not Reb Groshkover is an actual devil, the story refuses to say. On the one hand, the wife is right that Reb makes up a reason for why he can’t eat, and she seems to be right about his half unshaved beard. [You can’t give her this one outright because she doesn’t make the declaration about the funeral preparations until after she feels his face. Perhaps, she is crazy and inventing a story to fit the facts?] She also stabs him with the ice pick and he doesn’t die. On the other hand, he does bleed. [Can devils bleed?] Finally, the story doesn’t continue into the next day where the issue would be resolved. [We would know for sure on the next day if the wife was crazy, or right, because there would, or wouldn’t, be Reb Groshkover’s dead body somewhere near their house.]

The fable is meant to be ambiguous… but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a point. We will get to what that point is in more detail in the next question when we arrive at theme. For now,

20 out of 20 points.

Part Two of the review can be found here.

Footnotes:

1. I will limit my survey to scripts written AND directed ONLY by the Coens.

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2 responses to “A Serious Man

  1. This was a great breakdown.

    This script remains near the top of my best of The Brothers List. His analysis reinforces that idea.

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