Spoilers for A Serious Man and Awakenings below!
Is there a point to life? Is there any meaning?
Obviously, these are the most basic yet existential questions that we can ask as humans. We may never know the real answer, but I recently watched two movies that addressed the questions.
I never would have connected A Serious Man and Awakenings in my mind if I hadn’t watched them each for the first time on consecutive nights. Each of these movies takes an opposing view to whether there is any meaning to life, and it is fascinating to view them as being in conversation with each other.
A Serious Man is a 2009 film from the Coen Brothers about Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish father and teacher whose life takes one unexpected turn after another. For a movie about a religious man and family, this film takes the stance that there is no God or meaning to life, and that everything we do is just leading us on a path to our eventual demise.
All throughout this movie, one thing after another happening in his life – his wife asks for a divorce, a student tries to bribe him for a better grade, his neighbor seems to hate him for no reason, his chances at tenure seem to be decreasing by the day, and the list goes on.
As the film progresses, there is one line that Larry repeats over and over: “What’s going on?” All throughout the movie, and all throughout his life, really, he just wants to understand what is happening. He wants to find his place in the world, but he’s smacked in the face with a resounding “no!” at every turn.
Larry goes through life just trying to understand all while teaching his students about the Uncertainty Principle, which “proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on,” he tells his students as he stands in front of a chalkboard (which absolutely dwarfs him) covered in mathematic equations. It’s a simple, yet effective, visual metaphor for life. We just try and try to understand the world, but ultimately there is too much.
Even his faith, which so many people look to as a source of comfort and answers doesn’t lead him anywhere helpful. He talks to lower level Rabbis, but they only ever provide him with ultimately meaningless cliches. Larry is never even allowed a conversation with the senior rabbi (a metaphorical stand-in for God), who he really wanted to talk to all along.
Ultimately, as all of Larry’s issues come to a head, he receives an ominous call from his doctor at the same time that a massive tornado comes barreling towards his son’s school. The Coens, in all of their dark comedic wisdom, seem to have come to a saddening conclusion about life – there is no point. We can try our best to straighten everything out, but death comes for everyone, oftentimes leaving so much unresolved. Oh, and God is unknowable.
The opposite side of this coin is the 1990 Penny Marshall film Awakenings, which follows Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) as he works with catatonic patients in a New York City hospital. This movie doesn’t have anything to do with religion or God at face value, but beneath the surface, it’s the whole point of the movie.
In short, the main message of this movie is that most people take life for granted and don’t enjoy the little things. We have the whole world at our fingertips – we can go for walks and look at the trees and realize that these very things are tiny miracles. But most people don’t even think to notice these things. Instead, we go about life keeping our focus elsewhere.
When Dr. Sayer discovers a drug that can give those in a catatonic state their titular “awakening,” he thinks he has no choice but to administer it. After all, isn’t a life where you are aware of the world around you, and where you are able to interact with that world better than one where you can’t? It’s a choice just about anyone would make. We all want fulfilling lives, so why not provide that to people who may not have their own fulfilling lives?
Well as it turns out, a life may not always be what you expect. When one of Dr. Sayer’s patients, Leonard (Robert De Niro), first wakes up, he is happy to finally be able to interact with those around him for the first time in decades. All Leonard wants to do is go for walks and exercise his newly regained free will, but the doctors won’t let him because they don’t think he’s healthy enough.
Leonard responds by talking about how people who don’t need to request this as a privilege take life completely for granted. As an opposite point to A Serious Man, you don’t need to understand the meaning of life to appreciate the beauties it provides.
Unfortunately, the drug has terrible side effects and Leonard needs to stop taking it. It shows the kinds of effects that can come about when man tries to play God… But it isn’t negative in the way you might think.
In this situation, Dr. Sayer represents God. He has the ability to give and take life from Leonard, who represents humanity. At the end of the film, Dr. Sayers finds himself wondering why he had the right to give life, only to take it away. It was due to the fact that Leonard was Dr. Sayer’s friend that giving Leonard his awakening was the right thing to do. This is a beautiful way to show how God ordains life from beginning to end, and wants us find him and know him. Everyone is given life and has life taken from us. What we do during our life is what creates its meaning.
If the Coen Brothers and Penny Marshall were to sit down in a room together and have a conversation about the meaning of life, this is likely how it would go. And since they both made great movies, it’s easy to take each of their theses as gospel.
Ultimately, it comes down to optimism vs. pessimism. Hopefulness vs. hopelessness. Meaningfulness vs. meaninglessness. It is your choice whether to look for and find the deep meaning and beauty that is available in every corner of the world.