A serious movie


I haven’t seen the latest from Joel and Ethan Coen, but judging from the intellectual calisthenics being performed by the critical establishment, the Minnesota-raised filmmakers are well on their way becoming the Phillip Roth’s of the silver screen, the ones unpacking all the contradictions and crises of modern Jewish life in America. The film, as most reviewers note, is a contemporary take on the Book of Job, telling the story of Larry Gopnik, who like most American Jewish anti-heroes, is a smart dude facing a shtetl-sized pile of tsuris.  

A.O. Scott of The New York Times kicked things off over the weekend with a tour de force of an essay in The New York Times, touching on age-old Jewish identity crises and the appeal of the contemporary Jewish counterfactual. (Scott’s straight-ahead review is here.)

Emancipation in 18th- and 19th-century Europe turned out to be a mixed blessing, and in America in the 20th century assimilation was both an aspiration and a worry. Pious shopkeepers looked on with pride and dismay as some of their most brilliant and ambitious children made a great show of casting off parental strictures and the fetters of custom and claiming their individualist American birthright.

But then, as the generations progressed, they circled back. Nathan Zuckerman, Mr. Roth’s durable and defiant alter ego, returned to the clannish precincts of his (and Mr. Roth’s) childhood in Newark, much as the Coen brothers have found their way back to St. Louis Park. The past they imagine is also, in its way, a counter-narrative, not only because of its exaggerations, but also because of what is omitted. Neither the Holocaust nor Israel is mentioned in “A Serious Man,” which also limits the American 1960s to marijuana and the Jefferson Airplane, as if Vietnam, the civil rights movement and the urban riots had never happened.

Objectively, and compared with just about any of his ancestors, Larry Gopnik inhabits an earthly paradise, free from persecution, discrimination and want, surrounded (with a few exceptions) by his own kind, and with nothing to worry about but his job, his family and his God. Needless to say, he’s miserable. But his unhappiness makes for a pretty good joke. Why wouldn’t it? 

David Denby, writing in the New Yorker, was considerably less enamored.  

At the conclusion of their new movie, “A Serious Man,” the Coen brothers pull off a neat little joke. The picture is devoted to the travails of an unhappy Midwestern Jewish family—a real menagerie—in the sixties, and, in the end titles, the Coens have inserted, after the names of hardworking laboratories, the words “No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture.” Very good; first rate, in fact. But I’m not sure it’s true. I know of at least two Jews who were harmed—Ethan and Joel Coen. “A Serious Man,” like “Burn After Reading,” is in their bleak, black, belittling mode, and it’s hell to sit through. The movie is a deadpan farce with a schlemiel Job as a hero—Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physicist at a local university, whose life, in 1967, is falling apart. Gopnik’s wife (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for a sanctimonious bastard (Fred Melamed) who covers his aggressions against Larry with limp-pawed caresses and offers of “understanding.” Larry’s kids are thieving brats, and his hapless, sick, whining brother (Richard Kind) camps on the living-room couch and refuses to look for work. There’s more, much more, a series of mishaps, sordid betrayals, and weird coincidences, but Larry, a sweet guy and “a serious man”—upright, a good teacher, a father—won’t hit back. Occasionally, his eyebrows fluttering like street signs in a hurricane, he stands up for himself, but he won’t take a shot at anyone, or try to control anyone, verbally or any other way. He won’t even sleep with the dragon-eyed but sexy and highly available woman next door who sunbathes naked.

In Tablet Magazine, Liel Leibovitch explains why reviewers like Denby just don’t get it. 

As is the case with existential conundrums of this magnitude, the very act of pondering could get tricky, for character and audience alike. If drama, as Alfred Hitchcock neatly put it, is life with the dull bits left out, metaphysical musings—the kind involving God, the universe, and our reasons for being—can too often seem like the dull bits with the rest of life left out. What unfurls on the screen lacks a particularly defined plot, any semblance of character development, or any of the other tropes that constitute cinema as we know it. Which, of course, has sent some critics reeling: the film, they argued, was too bleak, the protagonists too stereotypical, the narrative too lackluster. A viewer about to see A Serious Man would do well to ignore these voices and, like Gopnik, get ready for some serious grappling.

And grappling is what the film is about. The plot, or whatever little of it matters, is is concerned less with Gopnik’s questions and more with those he entrusts with answering it. The hapless physicist seeks the advice of several rabbis. It would betray much of the film’s considerable charm and dramatic tension to disclose just what each one says, but it comes as no surprise that a definitive, convincing, elegant explanation of God’s plan for the universe fails to materialize. 

Eric Herschthal, writing in the Jewish Week, actually scored an interview with the brothers, who are famous for being frustratingly elusive in explaining the meaning of their work to reporters: 

The film suggests that Judaism has no better answers to life’s most vexing questions than does, say, a 1960s rock band. In one scene the second rabbi, Rabbi Nachtner, tells Larry about a Jewish dentist who came to him asking similar questions — what does it all mean? The dentist was deeply troubled by Hebrew letters he discovered inscribed on the teeth of a patient, who was Christian. “Is it a sign from Hashem?” the rabbi quotes the dentist. 

But when Larry asks if they ever found out why the patient had Hebrew letters in his mouth, or what it all might mean, the rabbi says that we’ll never know the answer to these things. God’s reasons are unknowable to us. “It sounds like you don’t know anything,” Larry says back at him, exasperated.

Ethan downplays the religious implications of the film. “We were really just looking for a good story,” he said, pacing the room while his brother sat patiently, filling in answers when necessary. The brothers said that they only recently decided to make a film inspired by their own autobiographies, though Jews, Minnesota, and God — three defining nouns in their lives — have popped up in various other works. 

Given the Coens’ legendary caginess, it’s a little strange that the Forward elected to focus squarely on their interview with the brothers. But maybe it’s fortunate that someone did. 

The point of the fable is deliberately obscure, but to the Coens, the snowy plains of the Pale are a direct link to the prairie Jewish community at the center of “A Serious Man.” Ethan noted that the film depicts “the whole incongruity of Jews in the Midwest… a subculture, and a feeling, that is different from Jewish communities in New York or Los Angeles. Joel said: “What seems incongruous to us about it is the nature of the landscape, with Jews on it; it’s funny. The whole shtetl thing, maybe this is part of why we put the little beginning story in there, to kind of frame it. The whole shtetl thing, you go, right, Jews in a shtetl, and then you look at the prairie, in Minnesota, and… we kind of think, with some perspective, having moved out, what were we doing there? It just seems odd.”

The brothers were asked if those feelings of being like strangers in a strange land affected how they approach their storytelling. That, Joel said, is “an interesting but very difficult question to answer. I guess everything having to do with your background has some influence on how you tell stories, but it’s hard to parse, I think, how growing up in a… Jewish community in Minnesota really affected it. There were other things which were probably much more culturally influential on us than that in particular, things like television, pop culture that other kids are exposed to at the time, if you want to sort of look at things that were probably most… formative, but I really don’t know.”

The Coens, while pointing out that they believe “A Serious Man” has commercial appeal beyond Jewish audiences, admit to having wondered how their community would react. “We were probably curious about whether there would be hostility [toward it], but Jews who’ve seen it, religious Jews who’ve seen it so far, have been surprisingly open to it,” Ethan said. “A lot of Jews see things through the prism. Is this good for the Jews? I must say we haven’t encountered any negative pushback [to the film]. In fact, it has been just the opposite, which is very gratifying because, obviously, the sprit in which it was made was as an affectionate representation of something we were very familiar with. We’ll see, because it hasn’t really been out there.” And though Larry fears his redneck neighbor in the movie, the Coens insist they never personally experienced antisemitism growing up in Minnesota. Ethan said, including himself in the answer to whether this character truly related to the Coens’: “I assume all Jews are fascinated by antisemitism. I don’t know why.”

Here’s the trailer:


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