By Dennis Hartley
The noodge-y professor: A Serious Man.
Someone I once worked with in my standup comedy days (my hand to God, I wish I could remember who) had a great bit that he called “Jewish calisthenics”. “OK,” he would exhort the audience, “Here we go…ready? Neck back, and…repeat after me…” (shrug) “Why me? And rest. And again…” (shrug) “Why me?” Well, you had to be there.
Anyway, I thought it was a brilliant distillation of what “Jewish humor” is all about; a rich tradition of comedic expression borne exclusively from a congenital (and historically well-founded) persecution complex and cultural fatalism (trust me on this-I was raised by a Jewish mother). So do you know who else was raised by a Jewish mother? Those nice Coen boys-Joel and Ethan. In fact, they grew up in a largely Jewish suburban Minneapolis neighborhood (St. Louis Park). But you wouldn’t know it from their films. They nevah call. They nevah write a nice story a mother could love. Instead, it’s always with the corruption, the selfish behavior, and the killing, and the cattle prods…until now.
Well, I don’t know if you would necessarily call it a “nice” story (are they capable?), but A Serious Man is the closest that the Coen Brothers have come to writing something semi-autobiographical (sort of). They do set their story in a Minnesotan Jewish suburban enclave, in the summer of 1967 (when Joel was 13 and Ethan was 10). God help them, however, if their family was anything like the Gopniks; although if they were, it would explain a lot about the world view they expound in their films. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a “serious man”- a buttoned-down physics professor who can map out the paradoxical quantum mysteries of Schrodinger’s cat on a blackboard, but is absolutely stymied as to why his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) suddenly announces to him one day out of the blue that she wants a divorce. To add insult to injury, she wants him to move out of the house as soon as possible, so that the man she wishes to spend the rest of her life with, a smarmy neighborhood widower named Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed) can settle in.
This situation alone would give any self-respecting mensch such tsuris, nu? Yes, it gets worse. Larry gets no sympathy or support from his snotty, self-absorbed daughter (Jessica McManus) or his stoner son (Aaron Wolff), who spends more time obsessing on his favorite TV show F Troop than brushing up on his Hebrew for an upcoming Bar Mitzvah. He also has problems at work, ranging from the usual politics of academia to staving off a deranged student who is attempting to blackmail his way to a passing grade. And then there is his perennially underemployed brother (Richard Kind) who has become a permanent house guest who spends an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom, draining his, erm, cyst (ah, yes-we’re still firmly entrenched in Coen territory here, kids).
Teetering on the verge of an existential meltdown, Larry seeks advice from three rabbis, embarking on a spiritual quest in order to glean, well, “Why me?” The story takes on the airs of a modern fable from this point onward, neatly telegraphed by the film’s opening ten minutes-a blackly comic, “old school” Yiddish folk tale with semi-mystical overtones strongly reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Love and Death. In the context of the Coen’s oeuvre, the character of Larry Gopnick is not really so far removed from William Macy’s character in Fargo or Billy Bob Thornton’s character in The Man Who Wasn’t There (sans the murder and mayhem, but sharing the plight of the hapless Everyman, ultimately left twisting in the wind by the detached cruelty of Fate…and the Coens themselves).
This is one of those films that I think I need to see again, because it really has some interesting layers to it that I don’t think can be fully appreciated in just one viewing (especially for its provocatively enigmatic ending) It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s made (gasp!) for adults, and it’s one of the most wildly original films I’ve seen this year. The cast is excellent, especially Sthulbarg and Kind, who are very believable as brothers with a complex relationship, and have some genuinely poignant scenes together (does their relationship reflect Joel and Ethan’s, I wonder?). I have to mention a wonderful (if brief) performance by Amy Landecker as the sexy neighbor, Mrs. Samsky (channeling Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson), who has a hilarious seduction scene with the uptight Larry.
Apparently there’s buzz from some quarters about the film being “too” Jewish, propagating stereotypes and so on and so forth, the Coens are self-loathing, blah blah blah, but I think that’s silly. Hell, I’ve got relatives that are more “Jewish” than the characters in the film. Besides, the Coens are Jews-is there some law against artists incorporating their heritage into their art? One might as well condemn Phillip Roth, Saul Bellow, Jules Feiffer, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Neil Simon for the same “crime”. So why do they persecute the Jews, huh? Why? (shrug) Why us? (shrug). And repeat…