By Tony Macklin
“No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture” is a coy line in the end credits of the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man.” Actually, some thought they were. Reviewer Ella Taylor screeched as though the Coens had harmed her personally. In The Village Voice, she wrote that the film has “Ugly Jew iconography.” Chill, Ella. The Coen Brothers are just doing their thing.
This time out they’re satirizing middle America and some Jewish sensibilities. They know firsthand since they grew up as Jewish lads in a mainly Jewish suburban neighborhood in St. Louis Park, Minn. In 1967, when “A Serious Man” is set, Joel Coen was 13 and Ethan Coen was 10.
Fate, often unkind, often absurd, is instrumental in the world of the Coens. This time it’s the Jewish who are not in control as much as they might believe and try to be successful and good.
At the beginning of ‘A Serious Man,’ there is a quotation from Rashi, “Receive with sympathy everything that happens to you.” But, in the world of the Coens, you might have to have 1,000 cheeks.
The mantra of ‘A Serious Man’ seems to be, “I didn’t do anything.” It’s a refrain of helplessness that dominates the movie
Larry Gropnik (Michael Stuhlberg) keeps repeating some variation of that line as fate keeps screwing with him. He is a well-meaning schlemiel whose life keeps careening out of his control. At first he seems a regular, unassuming Jewish middle-American passing through an uneventful life. He is a college physics professor, unpublished, undistinguished, who is awaiting tenure review.
His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) and two children Danny (Aaron Wolff) and Sarah (Jessica McManus) live in a house of conventional kitsch, a Walter Keane wide-eyed picture of a child on the wall and “F-Troop” on the TV.
Aaron is approaching his bar mitzvah, but at school he secretly listens to Jefferson Airplane during class. Grace Slick is joined by “Joel Slick” and “Ethan Slick.” They bring chaos into the life of the Gropniks.
Judith tells Larry she is going to leave him for widower Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed) an interloper who is as unctuous as they come.
Larry’s children are in constant, selfish squabbles.
Larry’s brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is a self-absorbed no-goodnik, who lives with them.
At work, Larry’s world also is crumbling. The tenure committee is receiving anonymous letters accusing Larry of moral turpitude. A failing student (David Kang) tries to bribe Larry to change his grade and threatens a lawsuit.
What are the ethics of survival? What’s a man to do in a world he never made? When one character dies, a rabbi refers to him as “a serious man.” It’s a meaningless tribute.
When Larry goes to Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg of TV’s “The Big Bang Theory”), the junior rabbi tells him there is truth outside in the parking lot. Another rabbi tells Larry an opaque story about a goy’s teeth, and a third rabbi won’t even speak to him. The third may be preferable to the other two.
The acting is first-rate. Especially memorable are stage actor Michael Stuhlberg as put-upon Larry and Fred Melamed as pomposity incarnate.
Any movie with Roger Deakins as director of cinematography is going to be evocatively photographed. A shot at the end is haunting
Often the Coen Brothers are esoteric filmmakers. They make some movies basically for a specific audience. Young audiences loved “The Big Lebowski,” but mainstream audiences didn’t care for it.
They are least effective when their arcane whimsy becomes coy. Their remake of “The Ladykillers” bombed, “Intolerable Cruelty” sputtered and “Burn After Reading” fizzled.
When they go mainstream they’re at their best with films like “Raising Arizona” and “Fargo,” which won the Best Actress Oscar for Frances McDormand and intrigued mass audiences. “Fargo” was not made only for North Dakotans.
“No Country for Old Men,” which won the Oscar for Best Picture, provoked mass audiences. “No Country” and “Barton Fink” are my favorite Coen Brothers’ films. I think both are brilliant.
Whether “A Serious Man” will appeal to mainstream audiences is doubtful. I’m not Jewish, but I am aggrieved. Therefore, at times, “A Serious Man” spoke to me.