Written and directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
As an exercise in futility (a Coen-brothers-appreciation primer if ever there was one), let’s imagine what might have happened had A Serious Man been made by gentiles, or, Hashem forbid, by Arabs.
Under those circumstances, it might be called the most anti-Semitic film of the year.
Hashem, by the way, is the name that characters in A Serious Man say instead of God, because they are serious Jews. They are funny too, the film suggests, but only because they’re so serious. As in not laughing with, laughing at.
Not that religious seriousness ever was the Coens’ first priority. It has been reported that Ethan wrote a philosophy thesis at Princeton in which he described belief in God as “the height of stupidity.” Later, he and Joel wrote Blood Simple and Barton Fink and Fargo and The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? and all the rest. Earlier, they endured suburban dullness and spiritual desperation in mid-’60s Minnesota--or so A Serious Man, set there, suggests. It’s the story of a schlemiel who hopes to be a mensch, but only suffers for his efforts. Is the suffering his own fault? His family’s? His neighbors? Hashem’s?
No, it’s the Coen brothers’. They’re pitiless. They’re like children torturing a small animal. For an audience. Of unpleasant Jews.
Timidly put-upon middle-class assimilate Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor of physics, lately has begun to observe the allegorical implications of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Larry seems to have become derailed from his tenure track. His wife (Sari Lennick) plans to leave him for a sanctimonious goon (Fred Melamed). His daughter (Jessica McManus) is stealing his cash to save up for a nose job. His son (Aaron Wolf) just wants to get high and watch F-Troop or listen to Jefferson Airplane in Hebrew school. And his mopey, unemployed, cyst-afflicted gambler brother (Richard Kind) lives on the couch and monopolizes the bathroom. Also, Larry has been fielding increasingly irritated calls from a collections officer of the Columbia Record Club. It goes on like this. Eventually, the stoned nude-sunbather next door (Amy Landecker) asks, “Do you take advantage of the new freedoms?” Larry doesn’t really know what to say.
Mostly he hoists his eyebrows, yanks down the corners of his mouth and diminishes his voice with a grating quaver. He does turn for guidance to a series of three rabbis, each less helpful and more monstrous than the last. The middle rabbi tells Larry a (brilliantly edited, Jimi Hendrix-enhanced) tale of a Jewish dentist who discovered a coded Hebrew message engraved inside a goy patient’s teeth. But the tale leaves Larry unfulfilled and well within his rights to reply, “It sounds like you don’t know anything. Why even tell me the story?” Once the delight of an expectation-defying punchline has abated, the same might be said to the filmmakers by their audience.
What seems to matter most is the suffering, and the spectacle. A Serious Man makes room for characters both sebaceous and phlegmatic. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is as skillful as always, but the way the camera looks at these people is like leering and also like staring them down.
It’s illuminating to have A Serious Man in theaters at the same time as Where the Wild Things Are, whose own menagerie of hairy, enormous, personal-space-invading grotesques derives from Maurice Sendak’s child’s-eye view of his old-world Jewish relatives. That view could be glaring at times, but would not now be so familiar to so many of us were it not also so fundamentally humane.
The Coens’ gargoyles, on the other hand, are universally loathsome. Not just ugly, they all tend to be morally or at the very least temperamentally repellent too. It’s fair to say they seem rather less likely than Sendak’s and Spike Jonze’s Wild Things to cement parent-child bonds and inspire several generations worth of proprietary affection. Not that the Coens even care about that.
What do they care about? What had they hoped to extract from this particular plot of personal history? Maybe they did intend a satirically affectionate commemoration, or even a Voltairean denunciation of faith-based optimism, but in any case what they’ve made seems more like some sort of long-deferred, highly disciplined tantrum.
So, phew, it’s a good thing they’re not gentiles or Arabs.