A Serious Man (2009)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on October 23, 2009 @ tonymacklin.net.

"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.

Jewish reviewer Ella Taylor screeched as though the Coens had harmed her personally.

In The Village Voice (and other publications), she wrote that A Serious Man has "Ugly Jew iconography." She called the movie "loathsome" and "vicious," and she asked, "Is A Serious Man a work of Jewish self-loathing?"

Chill, Ella.

The Coen Brothers -- Joel and Ethan -- 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, Minnesota, in the 1960s. [In 1967, when A Serious Man is set, Joel Coen was 13, and Ethan 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. Gropnik is groping in the dark.

At first Larry 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 He is a college physics professor, unpublished, undistinguished, who is awaiting tenure review.

Larry has a wife Judith (Sari Lennick) and two children Danny (Aaron Wolff) and Sarah (Jessica McManus). They 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 Hebrew 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 Korean student (David Kang) tries to bribe Larry to change his grade -- and then 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 young 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 in A Serious Man 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. College kids and young audiences loved The Big Lebowski (1997) -- which has become a cult classic -- but mainstream audiences didn't care for it.

The Coens are least effective when their arcane whimsy becomes coy. Their remake of The Ladykillers (2004) bombed, Intolerable Cruelty (2003) sputtered, and Burn After Reading (2008) fizzled.

Often when they go mainstream they're at their best. Raising Arizona (1987) delighted mass audiences, Fargo (1996) -- which won the Best Actress Oscar for Joel's wife Frances McDormand -- intrigued mass audiences. [Fargo was not made only for North Dakotans.]

And No Country for Old Men (2007), which won Oscars for the Coens and for Best Picture, provoked mass audiences. No Country and Barton Fink (1991) 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.

© 2000-2017 Tony Macklin