‘SE­RI­OUS’ COMIC COM­MENT

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Go See - By John Bei­fuss

“NO JEWS WERE HARMED in the mak­ing of this mo­tion pic­ture.” Those words ap­pear near the end of the fi­nal cred­its of “A Se­ri­ous Man.” They may be ac­cu­rate, but they may not pro­vide much re­as­sur­ance to those grap­pling with this fas­ci­nat­ing, dis­turb­ing film, which takes the con­cept of the self-loathing Jew to an ar­guably loath­some new level.

Pos­si­bly al­ready a boot­leg fa­vorite in Osama bin Laden’s cave, “A Se­ri­ous Man” may be the most re­veal­ing and per­sonal project yet from writer-direc­tors-ed­i­tors Joel and Ethan Coen. Set in 1967 in the sub­ur­ban homes, He­brew School class­rooms, mo­tel rooms and col­lege and syn­a­gogue offices of a “typ­i­cal” Min­nesota town, the film seems like an

act of nerds’ re­venge in­tended to ex­plain why the Coens be­came es­tranged from tra­di­tional Ju­daism.

The film­mak­ers claim to be treat­ing their sub­ject with af­fec­tion, and no doubt many of the char­ac­ters rep­re­sent rec­og­niz­able types who wouldn’t be out of place in a more light-hearted Jewish farce; yet what does one make of a movie in which al­most ev­ery per­son is made up to re­sem­ble an anti-Semitic car­i­ca­ture, com­plete with hunched shoul­ders, leg braces and “se­ba­ceous cysts”? (The ex­cep­tion is the bored and se­duc­tive house­wife next door, Mrs. Sam­sky, who tans in the nude.) The Coens of­ten traf­fic in hu­man car­toons, but never be­fore have their char­ac­ters been so charm­less and un­lik­able.

An ex­tremely dark comic re­write of the Bi­ble story of Job, “A Se­ri­ous Man” be­gins with the ar­rival of an ap­par­ent dyb­buk (a de­mon from Jewish folk­lore) and ends with the prom­ise of an act of de­struc­tion that would not be un­char­ac­ter­is­tic of the God of the To­rah. Even the wis­est rabbi in the film quotes the lyrics of the Jef­fer­son Air­plane song that runs through the sound­track like an ac­cu­sa­tion: “When the truth is found to be lies/ And all the joy within you dies ...”

An ac­com­plished stage ac­tor in his first sig­nif­i­cant movie role, Michael Stuhlbarg stars as Larry Gop­nik, a be­lea­guered physics pro­fes­sor whose com­fort with Heisen­berg’s un­cer­tainty prin­ci­ple doesn’t help him cope with his in­creas­ingly un­sta­ble home life, where his shrew of a wife (Sari Len­nick) wants a di­vorce, his chil­dren are rude and selfish, and his goy neigh­bor seems like he’d just as soon train his deer ri­fle at a Jew as at a buck.

What does it all mean? “You have to see th­ese things as ex­pres­sions of God’s will,” coun­sels a ju­nior rabbi. “You don’t have to like it. We can’t know ev­ery­thing.” Re­sponds the an­guished Gop­nik: “It sounds like you don’t know any­thing .”

As al­ways with the Coens, the movie is al­most breath­tak­ing in its pro­fes­sion­al­ism and tech­ni­cal ac­com­plish­ment. It’s no sur­prise that the broth­ers fi­nally are ad­dress­ing di­rectly the re­la­tion­ship be­tween God and man, be­cause the Coens are among the most “god­like” of film­mak­ers. The worlds in their films seem to spring en­tirely from their minds, with each el­e­ment part of some sort of In­tel­li­gent De­sign; the char­ac­ters in th­ese worlds think they have free will, but fre­quently dis­cover they’re rush­ing to­ward a pre­or­dained dead end that makes a mock­ery of their best ef­forts.

The most ex­hil­a­rat­ing se­quence in “A Se­ri­ous Man” is the drama­ti­za­tion of an anec­dote about a den­tist who dis­cov­ers a plea for help mys­te­ri­ously etched in He­brew in the back of a client’s teeth; the Coens’ construction of this se­quence is a marvel (es­pe­cially the sound edit­ing), but the story point­edly re­solves noth­ing.

Maybe the Coens find ful­fill­ment in toy­ing with their char­ac­ters be­cause they don’t be­lieve any­one or any­thing is toy­ing with them. “A Se­ri­ous Man” sug­gests life may be too ran­dom even to qual­ify as a cruel joke, be­cause a joke re­quires some­body to tell it.

Pho­tos by Wil­son Webb

A physics prof and an an­guished Jew, Larry Gop­nik (Michael Stuhlbarg) finds no easy the­ory to ex­plain a life spin­ning out of whack in “A Se­ri­ous Man.”

The bib­li­cal tone of “A Se­ri­ous Man” may re­flect the “god­like” film­mak­ing of Joel and Ethan Coen. The worlds in their films seem to spring en­tirely from their minds.

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