A Serious Man (2009) Poster



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The Coen Brothers stated that the opening scene was nothing more than a little short that they made up to get the audience in the proper mood, and that there is no meaning behind it.
In his argument with the Columbia House records employee over the phone, Larry Gopnik repeatedly rejects the album Abraxas by Santana. Abraxas is a Gnostic term for God, particularly a God who encompasses all things from Creator of the Universe to the Devil, and an etymological root for "abracadabra". It is thus implied that Larry Gopnik is vehemently rejecting mysticism, pantheism, and magic.
The cast contains very few Coen regulars, and most of the actors in the film are relative unknowns.
Most of the doorposts throughout the movie (including the Gopniks' and Mrs. Samsky's) have a small box attached to them. This is a mezuzah, a case containing passages from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21), which Jews traditionally affix to the door frames of their houses as a constant reminder of God's presence. A mezuzah also functions as a sign that a Jewish person occupies the house or works in the building onto which it is affixed, so in this movie, the frequent sight of mezuzahs on doorframes is one of many indications that most of the characters are Jewish.
A law firm called Tuckman Marsh is mentioned at one point. It was also mentioned in the Coens' previous film Burn After Reading (2008).
Shot in 44 days.
The names of the characters who ride the school bus with Danny Gopnik are the names of children that the Coen brothers grew up with.
Red Owl was a real Midwest grocery store chain, with several stores in the Twin Cities area, including Knollwood Plaza in St. Louis Park, about 2 mi. South of the Coen family home. The Red Owl mentioned in the film is identified as being in Bloomington, suburb some ways to the South of St. Louis Park. The significance in Rabbi Nachtner's anecdote is that Sussman's investigation of the teeth mystery takes him on a drive in the middle of the night that would have taken about an hour and a half round trip: far enough to seem just a little obsessed, but not too much. The Red Owl sign used in an exterior scene in the movie was a genuine antique, which unfortunately was accidentally dropped and destroyed after filming.
Sarah Gopnik repeatedly talks about going to "The Whole". The Whole is the music club in the basement of the University of Minnesota student union. It opened in the 1960s.
Sy Ableman says mathematics is "the art of the possible", a paraphrase of a quote by Otto von Bismarck, who called politics "the art of the possible".
Patton Oswalt auditioned for the role of Arthur Gopnik.
The voice of Dick Dutton, the Columbia Record Club employee who harasses Larry on the phone, is supplied by actor Warren Keith. This is the second time he has appeared in a Coen Brothers film playing a character heard only on the phone. He also supplies the voice of Reilly Diefenbach, the GMAC finance officer who calls Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo (1996).
Comedian Marc Maron tested for the lead role.
At his Bar Mitzvah, Danny reads a "Parshah" or portion of the Torah scroll known as "Behar" (Leviticus 25:1 - 26:2) which details the events of the Jubilee year, including the release of slaves and return of ancestral lands. Because the reading of Torah portions follow a set yearly cycle, this means that Danny's Bar Mitzvah occurred in early May of 1967.
Tyson Bidner, the film's location manager, was cast as the magbiah at Danny's bar mitzvah because he had been one in real life. He said the Torah scroll was very heavy and difficult to lift above his head.
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The first word of English is spoken around eight minutes into the film.
The song heard on the record played repeatedly in the Gopniks' house is Dem Milners Trern ("The Miller's Tears") by Sidor Belarsky, a Yiddish folk song of a sad miller's fears of growing old and alone, echoing the film's theme.
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Most Jewish congregations of the day required Bar Mitzvah boys to chant only the haftarah, an excerpt from the Prophets thematically related to that week's Torah portion and read directly afterwards. Only more "serious" congregations required that they also precede the haftarah recital by chanting the final Torah portion (maftir), as is seen with Danny. This is considerably more than twice as much work, as Torah and haftarah cantillation use different sets of musical motifs notated by the same set of "accents" (extra diacritical marks in the learning text). Learning both systems is thus like learning a new alphabet - and then learning two entirely different ways of pronouncing each letter.
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While the story happens in 1967, the Santana Abraxas LP mentioned in the film was recorded and released in 1970.
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The synagogue used for filming was B'nai Emet in the Coen brothers' home town of St. Louis Park, Minnesota, where they went to synagogue.
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No line gets a bigger laugh when the film plays in Minneapolis than Larry's divorce lawyer telling him "Hire Ron Meshbesher" to represent Arthur. Meshbesher is a real person, the most prominent criminal defense attorney in Minnesota for 40-some years, "The Guy" in the words of other lawyers. Thus, Larry learns that Arthur is more trouble than he'd imagined. This is a slight anachronism, as Meshbesher's reputation was not yet established by 1967. To make the significance of the recommendation more apparent to contemporary and non-Minnesota viewers, the script inflates the amount of Meshbesher's retainer a good bit from what it was in the late 60s. The scene was shot in the Minneapolis office of Meshbesher and Spence, and the address on the retainer envelope at the end of the movie is the actual address of the firm.
Two actors in this movie portrayed notorious gambler/mobster Arnold Rothstein in other works: Michael Stuhlbarg in "Boardwalk Empire" and Michael Lerner in "Eight Men Out".
When Larry is looking at his class list near the end of the movie, the last student name is Mary Zophres. Zophres is the costume designer on this film.
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Judith has Larry meet her and Sy at the Embers restaurant to discuss family matters. Embers was a popular chain of "family restaurants" in the Twin Cities in the 60s and 70s, known for TV ads in which a local actress would promise customers dissatisfied with a menu item would have it "cheerfully exchanged." An early Embers spokeswoman was a then-unknown Lonnie Anderson, who would go on to star in TV shows and film. St. Louis Park, where the story is set, had a number of Jewish delicatessen restaurants. That Judith has insisted on discussing private matters supposedly governed by their Jewish faith in a public place adds to Larry's feeling that faith, and thus Hashem, is crumbling all around him. That Embers as is a specifically "mainstream Minnesota" public space identified with Anderson's Scandinavian blondness is an inside joke adding to Larry's feeling of isolation and entrapment. In real life, there was an Embers about.75 mile from the Coen family home, and Joel and Ethan probably ate there numerous times. Embers began to decline in the 80s and eventually went belly up, though the name has been licensed to a few independent restaurants. The location in the film does not resemble an actual Embers in any way.
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The trivia items below may give away important plot points.

The Coen Brothers' original idea for the picture was as a short film about Danny's stoned bar mitzvah and his meeting with Rabbi Marshak. All of the other content in the movie grew out of that sequence.
The tornado bearing down on the town at the climax is a factual event. There was a tornado outbreak in Southern Minnesota, 1967.
Rabbi Marshak misquotes the Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love," changing "all the joy within you dies" to "all the hope within you dies" - appropriate given Danny's family situation. Furthermore, he then names three or four members of the band (comically stumbling over Jorma Kaukonen's last name), as an apparent attribution to the quote, but the song was in fact written by Grace Slick's brother-in-law, Darby Slick.
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In parsha cycle - which reads through the five-books of the bible over the course of the Jewish year - Danny's Bar Mitzvah parsha, "Behar", is followed by "Bechukotai" (Leviticus 26:3-27:34). While Behar discusses the Jubilee Year - the emancipation of slaves and the return of lands to their ancestral heirs - Bechukotai is chiefly known for the verses of Admonition, which warn of the punishments to be endured by those who disobey God. Among other things, the Admonition promises exile, the loss of family and attack by enemies and faint-heartedness - fates suffered by Larry Gopnik. In most years, the two parshahs are read on the same day. Because 1967 coincided with a "Jewish Leap" year - with an extra month before Passover - reading of Bechukotai would have been delayed to the following week (May 27, 1967). Much like Larry Gopnik's travails, the fearful Admonitions would be delayed but not escaped. And although the Hebrew School and Bar Mitzvah sequences in the film are clearly autobiographically inspired, Joel Coen was born on November 29, 1954 and hence would have become Bar Mitzvah in December of 1967. The precise date of Danny's Bar Mitzvah thus appears to have been selected for this resonance.
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