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.
Over the line! Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, right) goes through a Coen brothers-scripted crisis of faith in A Serious Man. Fargo it ain’t.
Hashem, by the way, is the name the film’s characters use for God, because they’re serious Jews. They’re funny too, the film suggests, but only because they’re so serious. As in “not laughing with, laughing at.”
Not that religious sincerity ever was the Coens’ priority. Reportedly, Ethan wrote a thesis at Princeton in which he described belief in God as “the height of stupidity.” Later, he and Joel wrote and made many popular movies together. 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 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 physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) lately has begun to observe the allegorical implications of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. His wife (Sari Lennick) plans to leave him for a sanctimonious goon (Fred Melamed). His daughter (Jessica McManus) is stealing his cash to save for a nose job. His son (Aaron Wolf) just wants to get high and watch “F-Troop.” And his mopey, unemployed, gambler brother (Richard Kind) monopolizes the couch and the bathroom. Also, Larry has been fielding calls from an irritated Columbia Record Club collections officer. It goes on like this. Eventually, a stoned nude-sunbather next door (Amy Landecker) asks, “Do you take advantage of the new freedoms?” Larry doesn’t know what to say.
Mostly he hoists his eyebrows, frowns and diminishes his voice with a grating quaver. Then turns for guidance to three rabbis, each less helpful and more monstrous than the last. The middle one tells Larry a (brilliantly edited, Jimi Hendrix-enhanced) tale of a Jewish dentist who discovered a Hebrew message engraved inside a patient’s teeth. But the tale leaves Larry unfulfilled and he replies, “Why even tell me the story?” Once the delight of an expectation-defying punchline has abated, the same might be said to the filmmakers.
What seems to matter most is the suffering and the spectacle. 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. What had the Coens hoped to extract from this plot of personal history? Maybe they intended a satirically affectionate commemoration, or possibly a denunciation of faith-based optimism, but what they’ve made seems more like some long-deferred, highly disciplined tantrum.
So—phew—it’s a good thing they’re not gentiles or Arabs.