So, what does it all mean? (The movie, that is.) A Serious Man is the Coen's headiest film to date, and I'm not just saying that because it's been rattling around my noggin for days. There are many interpretive avenues to travel down: there's the one that obsesses over the use of Surrealistic Pillow; the Jewish one; the one about logic & probability. But, for me, it seems that the domestic issues of family and marriage that exist in A Serious Man have never been so vivid in a film of the Coens since Raising Arizona. The Gopniks are a two kids/two car family with the makings of a clan that might just live in the same subdivision as Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper. Larry's son signed up for the Columbia record club, his daughter wants in the bathroom, and his wife wants a divorce. None of this is his fault, of course ("I didn't do anything", he repeats). But as Larry reprimands a Korean student of his by referencing the laws of action and consequence, we know that he's partly at fault for it all.
Thankfully, we're not back in the braindead Sam Mendes/Alan Ball suburban warfare territory here. No. As the Coens accentuated the close living quarters of H.I. and Edwina's trailer in Raising Arizona to reflect the good-Earth nature of those characters, so too here does the Gopniks's house reflect a protective nature that Larry steadfastly strives to provide. Sure, Larry can come off as a sheepish lion when he lets another man talk him out of his own house, or when he backs down from a neighbor who is planning to encroach onto his property, but Larry's motivations are his kids and his home. This is evident in the way he let's himself get pinballed around by his synagogue's three elusive rabbis for the endgame benefit of finding a pathway to stability for his family.
But the dark horse in this whole scenario is The Gopnik Family's relative, Uncle Arthur (bravely played by Richard Kind). Introduced to us early as a comedic foil - the reason Larry's daughter can't get in the bathroom is because Arthur is constantly inside, draining his sebaceous cyst - Arthur is, in many ways, at the heart of A Serious Man. In fact, he drives the climactic scene between him and Larry that takes place at an empty motel pool (drained, just like his cyst). Larry has been so consumed by the griping and gritting and grinding away of his own misfortunes, that he never took a breather to step back and gain perspective. Especially from the perspective of Arthur. Yes, Larry admires the fact that Arthur "never complains" but, in truth, Arthur is really a specimen that's at the the butt-end of life's most appealing physical qualities. He's hairy in gross places, flabby, has terrible posture, dumpy, and has an ugly face. Thus, he's an extreme outcast, envious of Larry's ability to create a family. But when Arthur confesses this to Larry point blank, it goes over his head. He's unawakened.
Of course, Larry may still be too distracted by the way his rival, Sy Abelman, has moved in on his wife. Like Arthur, Sy was not blessed with the most attractive of features, but he exudes a convincing spiritual confidence that makes up for it. Subconsciously, Larry admires him. It's not because Sy is able to catch the attention of his wife, so much, but that Sy is able to ride on such a calm wave of life. He walks and talks and maneuvers like he's figured it all out. Revealed in a dream, Sy is the ideal of "a serious man" in Larry's mind. Forget all that math and physics mumbo jumbo that Larry throws up on his classroom chalkboard like territorial gang graffiti, because Sy's already the owner to life's answers. He even slams Larry's head up against the chalkboard for good measure. Cuz, really, what's Schrodinger's cat gonna do for you once the doctor calls with bad news?