Review: A Serious Man

By Jenni Frazer, November 9, 2009

Dirs. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen | USA | 2009 | 105 mins | English

The Coen Brothers' latest film, A Serious Man, is their most Jewish, definitely, and among their funniest, undoubtedly. Whether most audiences will understand it is another matter.
The first 15 minutes are, after all, entirely in Yiddish, set in a snowbound shtetl wherein a husband and wife may or may not be entertaining a dybbuk — the fantastically craggy-faced Fyvush Finkel.

But once the door is closed on the dybbuk a blast of Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane transports us to 1967, where Professor Larry Gopnik, a physics lecturer, is a re-imagined Job. And in this film, Job has no comforter.

Larry's useless brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), occupies the sofa; his teenage daughter is stealing money from him for a longed-for nose job; his son Danny, more or less permanently stoned, is approaching his barmitzvah; and his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is a harridan who announces she is leaving him for their neighbour, the born-again New Ager Sy Ableman — a gloriously over-the-top perfomance from Fred Melamed.

If that isn't enough, the next-door neighbours are rabid antisemites, his Korean student is trying to bribe him for a better grade, he may or may not have a health problem, and he is in deep lust with the sexy neighbour on the other side of the fence.

Larry's answer is to consult rabbis, but in 60s Minnesota the rabbonim range from the preposterous ("What's a get?" asks the first, un-kippahed junior rabbi) to the unattainable (the saintly Rabbi Marshak who rolls out the lyrics of Jefferson Airplane as though it were holy writ).

Watch the credits of this film, which are rewarding. Joel and Ethan Coen tell us that "no Jews were harmed in the making of this picture." Phew. That's a relief.

Last updated: 2:58pm, February 18 2011