‘SERIOUS’ COMIC COMMENT
“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.
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.