“We’re Jews. We have that well of tradition to draw on,” Larry Gopnik’s cousin consoles him in A Serious Man. Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Minnesota physics teacher, endures a progression of miseries in the Coen Brothers’ ironic new comedy. Disaster affects Larry’s sense of identity as teacher, husband, father, brother, tribesman. A student blackmails him, his wife asks for a divorce, his Wasp neighbor unnerves him, plus other travails. Yet the film itself is so sharp-witted that every irony makes life vivid rather than despairing. Any critic’s suggestion that a film as lovingly, emotionally precise as A Serious Man typifies Jewish self-hatred is ridiculous.
Larry seeks answers about his life from three rabbis and these sessions give A Serious Man the structure of a vaudeville routine or a legendary ethnic joke. That’s also the Coens’ well of tradition—unsentimentalized.
The Coens admit their own Jewishness the way their best recent films (The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Ladykillers, The Big Lebowski) admit Americanness: with genuine feeling for the complexities, abundance and absurd conventions that give us our identity. More than social satirists, the Coens’ extraordinary film craft (cinematography by Roger Deakins, sound design by Skip Lievsay) gift wraps their genuine soulfulness. Once again, their heartfelt plot makes adventure of a character’s ethical struggle: Larry’s attempt to appease his troubled conscience.
Each rabbi session frustrates Larry (one tea-dunking sage drones, “Something like this, it’s never a good time.”), but he’s also brought deeper inside the tradition he inherited—which is the Coens’ way of clarifying both Jewishness and Americanness. Starting with a 10-minute Yiddish prologue set in fin de siècle Poland (it’s the most audacious movie prologue since Wes Anderson’s Hotel Chevalier intro to The Darjeeling Limited), the Coens saturate viewers in cultural memory. It’s like a parody of Fiddler on the Roof, embracing ethnic superstition and critiquing it simultaneously. The same double vision occurs when the film flashes forward to Larry’s 1967 setting where the Coens lay out the paradox of pop revolution (The Jefferson Airplane blaring through the earphone of a transistor radio) alongside Larry’s modest portion of the American dream (the straitened luxe of middle-class suburbia).
Contrasting Larry’s physics theorems with Hebrew letters on a blackboard and Larry’s medical exam with his son’s Hebrew lessons, condenses Jewish social transition more cleverly than the mysticism of Darren Aronofsky’s overbearing Pi. The first English dialogue heard characterizes this ethnic-immigrant progress in the language of professionalism—a detail as telling as any conceived by Bernard Malamud, Bruce Jay Friedman, Saul Bellow or Philip Roth. The major difference from those literary Jewish popular artists is that the Coens’ self-consciousness is guiltless. Even their Rashi quotation (“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you”) contains such a sense of irony that it applies to the range of American experience. Consider that the film’s most symbolic image (Larry fixing the TV antenna on his roof) recalls Warren Beatty tending his rooftop weather vane in the Wasp conscience comedy Town and Country.
By situating Larry in a world of Jewish extremes (the needy brother, the solicitous head of his tenure committee, a rabbi decoding Jefferson Airplane as proverb or the overly intimate Sy Ableman whose self-righteousness gives the film its title), the Coens “accept the mystery.” They creditably ponder what’s left of faith in secular Jewish life. “How does God speak to us?” is Larry’s basic query. A rabbi’s regret—“I, too, have forgotten how to see Him in the world”—speaks to the absurdity Larry cannot comprehend. (It could also have been the moral of the Coens’ brilliant, cosmic Burn After Reading.)
A Serious Man opens concurrently with the Criterion DVD release of David Mamet’s 1991 film Homicide. It’s an instructive coincidence given the brazenness of the Coens producing what may be the most overtly Jewish movie ever made by a modern Hollywood studio and Mamet’s quasi-cop movie, which primarily examines the issue of Jewish guilt—it’s Mamet’s bid to be a serious man of Jewish cinema. Through Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna), a homicide detective who stumbles upon an American underground running guns to Israel, Mamet internalizes the Jewish persecution complex as a sense of masculine (existential) failure. It’s not a progressive view, plus it’s humorless. But when it premiered at the 1991 New York Film Festival, Homicide was taken very seriously even though Mamet’s plot had recklessly mishmashed contemporary urban tensions between Jews and Blacks. (Homicide is a pale variation on his excellent play Edmond.) Mamet’s key trope, “It never stops/Against the Jews,” typifies an essentially political paranoia that has recently been refined and complicated in Munich; paranoia that the Coens now transcend.
A Serious Man rejects the bland Jewishness of Judd Apatow films; it’s similar to the black filmmakers’ project in Next Day Air, in which social stereotypes get burlesqued, yet are used to reveal an essentially moral exercise.
Integrity shows in the clean, airy light the Coens cast on Larry’s confused world and the parochialism they chide at the end of a wild tangent about “the goy’s mouth.” The Coens’ inimitable ability to portray the delusions of modern sophisticates shows definitively when a sexy neighbor asks Larry, “Do you take advantage of the new freedoms?” Their post-coital, marijuana high is accompanied by the sound of a phonograph needle stuck in a groove. It’s the Coens proving that the groove of identity politics can also be a rut—yet they remain unstuck.
A Serious Man
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Runtime: 105 min.
Directed by David Mamet
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