A Serious Man: The Coen Brothers’ Jewish Question

5 minute read
Richard Corliss

Stick around through the end credits of Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man, and you’ll see the disclaimer “No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture.” That statement is classic Coen: deadpan funny and not to be trusted. Indeed, the film is full of Jews–residents of a Midwestern suburb in 1967–who seem bent on harming the Coens’ hapless hero, college physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), either directly or just by ignoring his mostly mute cries for help.

Not that the Coen brothers, who were raised in an academic Jewish family outside Minneapolis and were 12 and 9, respectively, when the movie takes place, are self- or other-hating Jews. But as mulishly independent filmmakers who have spent a quarter-century creating comedies and melodramas with a misanthropic tinge–and who were rewarded in 2008 with a bunch of Oscars for No Country for Old Men–they’ve specialized in anatomizing humanity’s weak points, as if they were gods laughing at the frailty of their puppets. Anyway, that’s the rap on the Coens from some critical quarters.

In A Serious Man, the brothers address this issue head-on. The film has more than its share of caricatures–drawn acutely or derisively, depending on your taste–all of whom assemble around Larry like a lynch party, each embodying some trait of predation or thoughtlessness that besets him on his rocky road. This time, though, there’s no George Clooney (smooth-talking alum of three Coen films) to guide the audience toward simply laughing off the plot as advanced raillery. The movie has no stars and few recognizable faces; in figuring out its intent, you’re on your own. Our guess: A Serious Man is as straightforward a parable of an honorable man among thieves as the Coens’ great Miller’s Crossing was. However aggressive and off-putting it may be, it deserves to be seen, confronted and embraced.

One of Larry’s problems is that he seems born to be intimidated. In a way, he’s a cousin to the William H. Macy character in the Coens’ Fargo, except that Larry hasn’t engaged any hit men to kidnap his wife; it’s more like a capricious God has taken out a contract on him. How come? Well, as the movie suggests in its opening scene–a mysterious, gorgeously shot fable set in a Polish shtetl, where a peasant brings into his home a rebbe who may have died and turned into a dybbuk–sometimes horrible things happen to decent people.

In the two weeks leading up to his son’s bar mitzvah, Larry’s life goes haywire. His wife wants him to move into a motel so her new boyfriend can live with her. His kids either shout at or ignore him. At work, where Larry is up for tenure, a Korean student hopes to erase a failing grade with a bribe. Larry’s legal bills are piling up, he just crashed his car, and he’s getting hondled by his doctor, the moose-killing goy next door and the Columbia Record Club. He seeks solace in the Talmud and consults local rabbis for the balm of their wisdom, but the film’s true text comes from a Jefferson Airplane song that’s played at crucial points: “When the truth is found to be lies/ And all the joy within you dies.” Larry, though, doesn’t really want somebody to love. He just needs an explanation for Yahweh’s having chosen him as the poster child for rotten luck.

Larry is a familiar figure from Jewish literature that dates back to the Old Testament–you remember Job–and permeates modern fiction, from the schlimazels of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s tales to Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern (from his 1962 novel), who moves to the suburbs and endures a plague of abuse from neighbors and nature. In Stuhlbarg’s precise and poignant portrayal, Larry accepts all tribulations with a mouth pressed into pruny silence, as if he has bitten into something rancid but doesn’t want to be seen spitting it out. Wouldn’t matter if he did: no one gives him a moment to articulate the psychic pains he harbors.

Unlike so many American films, which cast Gentiles in Jewish roles, this one has mostly ethnic-appropriate casting. And the characters may have a few stereotypical tics–Larry’s family slurps soup at a decibel level that even the Simpsons would find deafening–but they’re fully assimilated. Nobody says “Oy vey!” or talks shtick. If anyone answers a question with a question, it would be Larry’s plaintive “Why me?” when he seeks legal or spiritual help, followed by the world’s “Who cares?”

As Fate keeps stomping him, Larry embraces Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. What he tells his class about the theory–that even if they can’t figure it out, they’re still responsible for it on the midterm–applies, in spades, to his crumbling life. Yet he’s trying to hang in there, to behave righteously, to observe the precepts of his faith. The movie opens with a line from a Talmudic scholar, Rashi: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” If the Coens are for once being serious, then in this hard-to-shake, ultimately haunting movie, they’re saying that to absorb God’s body blows is to be fully alive. To do otherwise … well, it could kill you.

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