The whole time I was watching "A Serious Man" in a Jerusalem cinema, I kept thinking how relieved I was not to be somewhere out there in the world, among non-Jewish viewers. If ever the phrase "shandeh fur die goyim" appropriately described a film, it was with this latest effort by Joel and Ethan Coen, which opened in Israel in mid-December.
Calling "A Serious Man" the Coen Brothers "most Jewish" movie yet is a gross understatement. Everything about it is Jewish - from the mysterious prologue, which takes place in an Eastern European shtetl and is rendered completely in Yiddish, to the fact that the life of the Gopnik family seems to revolve around their synagogue in suburban Minnesota. The characters keep talking about "Hashem," which is not the way I remember Conservative Jews referring to the Deity 40 years ago, but certainly is Jewish. When things start to go sour in the life of our hero Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), his first thought - and second and third - is to turn to a rabbi for help. Thus we see him go to shul for spiritual counseling and keep coming back for more, even as the junior rabbi and then the senior one both insult him with inane comments about his distress, while the ancient rabbi emeritus refuses to even grant him an audience. And when Larry's appalling wife announces she's leaving him for their dear family friend Sy Ableman, she adds insult to injury by insisting that her husband grant her a get, and basically demands not only that he release her, but that he also give her his blessing.
Of course, "A Serious Man" is satire, so it's acceptable that only the audience (not the characters) seems to notice that Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner) is a pompous buffoon, that Sy (Fred Melamed) is a dishonorable fraud, or that Larry's kids lack even a modicum of kindness or compassion. The Coens are very good with the details: They seem to have one wardrobe person who just deals with outfitting characters with retro eyeglass frames, and they are relentless but credible with the horrifically ugly "Jewish" furnishings (oils of Hasidim) that grace the Gopnik home, the Yiddish opening bit in the Russian Pale and the scenes in Danny Gopnik's Talmud Torah Hebrew class, where the kids are made to repeat by rote rudimentary phrases in Ashkenazis Ivris.
They get it all right (although someone in the movie theater wondered aloud, quite reasonably, whether the elderly, wise and pious Rabbi Marshak would have handled a transistor radio on Shabbos). And yet, to me it seemed that they got it all wrong, which is the real reason this is movie so embarrassing.
"A Serious Man" is as in-your-face Jewish in content as "The Hebrew Hammer," Jonathan Kesselman's hilarious if foul-mouthed 2003 low-budget film about an Orthodox PI who joins forces with the head of the Kwanzaa Liberation Front to rescue the holiday of Hanukkah from the clutches of an evil Santa impersonator. Few movies have made me laugh so painfully as "The Hebrew Hammer," and there were moments in the new Coen Brothers' film that also caused me to cry as I laughed. But unlike the "Hammer," "A Serious Man" shows no mercy. Larry is the only character who knows right from wrong, and who shows signs of any introspection, but he's such an ineffectual pushover that it's hard to feel empathy for him. Everyone else is a moral monster dressed up like a normative, middle-class being.
Javier Bardem's serial killer in "No Country for Old Men" was clearly evil, and his captive-bolt stun gun filled viewers with dread, but Larry's brother, Arthur, in "A Serious Man," is no less repellent, with the vacuum pump he carries around to drain his sebaceous cyst, and his apparent lack of awareness of the tzuris his brother is experiencing, and his contribution to it.
The cruelty and suffering in "A Serious Man" are no more meaningful than the orgy of violence that punctuates "No Country." Sure, good people get sick, and have car accidents, and suffer from lots of other bad luck, some of it human-caused. But most of us have family and friends to help us, maybe even just to listen to us, even as we come to understand that life is ultimately something we go through alone.
What's inhuman about "A Serious Man" is not the litany of bad things that happen to Larry so much as it is the refusal of anyone around him to acknowledge their responsibility for his pain, and the complete absence of anyone for him to turn to for help or comfort.
Merciless, hypocritical and stupid, too. This is the way the Coen Brothers describe a tightknit and pious Jewish community in middle-class, Midwest America in the years they were growing up. That's the real shandeh fur die goyim.
David B. Green edits the original English-language opinion pieces for Week's End.
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