Review: A Serious Man

Review: A Serious Man


By Jonathan Foreman, November 19, 2009
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Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlberg) and wife Judy (Sari Lennick) enjoy a rare moment of happiness in shul

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlberg) and wife Judy (Sari Lennick) enjoy a rare moment of happiness in shul

Given the leading role that Jews have played in the history of Hollywood, there have been relatively few feature films that are mainly about Jews or set in Jewish communities.

We have The Jazz Singer of course, and later Fiddler on the Roof, The Chosen, and Holocaust movies like Schindler’s List, which centres on a German non-Jewish hero. There is Woody Allen’s whole oeuvre, Gentleman’s Agreement, and Barry Levinson’s wonderful films set in Baltimore. But the old Jewish moguls certainly did not want to draw attention to their ethnicity or to alienate an American mass audience that was not necessarily sympathetic to Jews.

That delicacy or embarrassment continued long after the studio system died. Then, very quickly, starting in the 1990s, and thanks possibly to the success of the TV sitcom Seinfeld, it became not just OK but normal to have explicitly Jewish characters in American movies.

Nevertheless, it comes as a bit of a shock to see a film as Jewish as Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man, and still more of a shock to come upon a film that so mercilessly exposes unattractive aspects of Jewish-American life as lived in the mid 1960s. It is all the more surprising given that the brilliant Coen brothers have not previously manifested an overtly Jewish sensibility (although the John Goodman’s Vietnam veteran character in The Big Lebowski was noisily quasi-Jewish — refusing to bowl on the Sabbath in honour of his Jewish ex-wife).

It's clear the Coens have little love for their roots

A Serious Man begins with an extraordinary, eerie (Yiddish-language with English subtitles) prologue set in a shtetl in Tsarist Russia. But the rest of it takes place in a predominantly Jewish suburb in 1967, and is inspired, the brothers have said, by their own childhood in Minnesota. And while you expect a Coen brothers’ film to embrace a more or less dark view of humanity, it quickly becomes all too clear that they have little affection for their roots.

That is actually putting it mildly. The assimilated-looking, religiously conservative Jewish community in A Serious Man (there are no “oy veys” but plenty of references to Hashem) is peopled by amazingly limited and unattractive people. Indeed, unlike Fargo, there does not seem to be a single likeable character, though some are more loathsome than others.

As reverse nostalgia and a bleak portrait of mid-western middle-class Jewish life it is all the more devastating because, most of the time, it does not fall into the trap of unbelievable grotesquerie. People are realistically unattractive rather than hideously ugly: hunch-shouldered, unhealthily pale, fat, badly dressed.

Even in 1967 these newly middle- class Jews are still too isolated from the gentile world to realise how off-putting their manners must have seemed: the incessant oriental throat-hawking and snot-gurgling, the shouting, the way they slurp their soup and shovel their food. Their suburb is still, despite the presence of the odd goyishe neighbour (here depicted as angry and frightening and obsessed with sport), a kind of shtetl, a community considerably less assimilated than the urban ones of the same period familiar from the writings of Saul Bellow and others.

Moreover the exuberance, love of life and barely suppressed earthiness of Philip Roth’s version of a similar world in Goodbye Columbus is markedly absent. It is so ghastly that you wonder what non-Jews could possibly make of such a place: antisemitism of an aesthetic kind almost seems a logical response. You keep expecting to come upon some warmth, some charm, some poetry, or some redeeming grace to make up for the insularity and arid narrow-mindedness. But there is none.

The protagonist, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), is a thirtysomething physics professor who has apparently been too wrapped up in his equations to notice what has gone wrong in his world. His wife Judy (Sari Lennick) wants to leave him for his pompous retired friend Sy Ableman (superbly played by Fred Melamed). Both his soon-to-be-barmitzvahed dopehead son and his shrill teenage daughter are monstrously selfish. Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind), the hapless, whining, unemployed but supposedly brilliant brother who lives with them, may have more things wrong with him than anyone imagines. Meanwhile an anonymous enemy is writing poison-pen letters to the tenure committee that will decide Larry’s academic future, a record club company keeps calling about mysterious unpaid bills, and the scary next-door neighbour is encroaching on Larry’s property.

After his wife expels him and his brother to the Jolly Roger motel and it dawns on Larry that everything is going wrong, he appeals to a series of rabbis and lawyers for help. He wants to know why these bad things are happening to him as much as what to do. Unworldly and almost autistic in his failure to understand the world around him, he believes he is a “serious man” though it is his rival, Sy Ableman, who has that reputation in the community.

Unfortunately Larry is so passive — as well as complacent, naïve and charmless — that it is hard to care about him, even though he has done nothing to deserve what happens to him. This is perhaps the film’s great weakness — as if the Coens’ misanthropy, present even in lighter films like Burn after Reading but unleavened here, has overwhelmed all other impulses.

There are some very funny shaggy- dog jokes scattered about the film, including a terrific, rather profound gag involving a rabbi and the Jefferson Airplane song Somebody to Love. But for the most part the film is bleak and dark and extremely serious beneath the comic caricatures. It is, as becomes clear towards the end, a modern retelling of the story of Job, though here there is no explanation for God’s apparent malevolence. And it leaves the big unanswerable questions hauntingly open.

Beautifully shot by the famed cinematographer Roger Deaken, A Serious Man is as deftly crafted as any of the other Coen brothers films, but the least enjoyable to sit through.

    Last updated: 2:58pm, February 18 2011