Analysis The Coen Brothers Just Don't Get Jews

The Coens Brothers' latest is a serious flop, and here's why: They've never been interested in Jews.

Uzi Silber
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Uzi Silber

My father-in-law is right about Coen Brothers movies: Each features some interesting comedic nugget or stylistic detail to gnaw on.

And in fact there are several such signature Coen-ish nuggets in A Serious Man, their latest and wildly anticipated first "Jewish" film: the furniture, appliances, hair dos, wardrobes, sedans and manicured lawns - all perfect in time and place. The Coens even saw it necessary to employ what they thought of as vital "Jewy" items such as large and hairy moles, ears and nostrils.

This tale of serial disaster has been gushed over and drooled upon by reviewers across the land, who've been competing for dwindling superlatives. For the Los Angeles Times, it's the Coens' "most personal, most intensely Jewish film?and their most universal."

The filmmakers' hometown Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune described it as a "brilliant balance of presentation and substance." Time Out New York's reviewer ordered readers to "see this film immediately." According to online film review warehouse, the consensus opinion of 80 of 93 reviewers was that the work was nothing short of "their most mature ? if not their best - film to date."

Here are my two cents for those who haven't yet seen the film: Aside from the enigmatic opening eight-minute segment, featuring a Yiddish-language Polish shtetl yarn about a dybbuk, don?t buy the hype.

Set in the Coens' own suburban hometown shtetl in Minnesota, the film follows the Job-like disintegration of Larry Gopnik, a bespectacled wimp of a junior physics professor.

Movie reviews have outlined Larry's cascading woes: a 'get' (Jewish divorce) demanded by a yentish wife interested in an older, fatter and balder Jew; a schlubby idiot savant brother who moves in only to move out with Larry into a seedy motel; the son, a bar mitzvah boy struggling mightily with his Torah portion while listening to Jefferson Airplane stoned; a homely daughter hankering for a nose job, a student's bribery attempt; tenure endangered due to anonymous rumor mongering, illness, storm clouds. Don't ask.

Hyperventilating adjectives notwithstanding, A Serious Man is a relative flop: Since opening three weeks ago it's generated box office receipts of about $2 million on a reportedly puny budget of $7 million. Why?

There were some telling chinks in the intimidating wall of reviewer conformity. The New Yorker's David Denby writes that "except for a few moments, it's hell to sit through," and concludes that "as a work of craftsmanship, the movie is fascinating; in every other way, it's insufferable." Amen.

Similarly, Michelle Orange of opines that the movie is "a slog, mostly; expertly crafted and yet difficult to watch." Amen sela.

Coen Brothers movies are original, quirky and often violent, featuring two dimensional, cartoonish characters animated by the thread of deadpan, black humor that made instant classics out of 1996's Fargo, Oscar winner No Country for Old Men and O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

But the Coens couldn't pull it off this time, and here's why: They've never been interested in Jews.

A story is doomed to failure unless its creators find its subject matter compelling. The fact is, with the exception of the odious title character in Barton Fink (John Turturro) and The Big Lebowski?s gregarious, if peripheral, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), the Coen brothers have cinematically ignored their Jewish background.

Joel Coen said as much at a press conference at the recent Toronto Film Festival. "We're making this movie now [because] things having to do with your childhood seemed to get a little bit more interesting as we got older."

With the exception of Barton Fink, the brothers have peopled their off-kilter productions with goyim of the windswept American interior, constructing wonderfully absurd, dark and surreal tales with a restraint that makes the madness seem perfectly plausible.

But they've never had much time for Jews.

Well known for the careful crafting of their movies, it occurred to me about halfway into the film that the script seemed slapped together. David Edelstein of New York magazine liked the movie but he had the same impression: "I got the feeling they had little idea what they would end up with when they sat down to write."

This suspicion is intensified by another, especially incoherent comment of Joel Coen's at the Toronto press conference: "The whole shtetl thing, maybe this is part of why we put the little beginning story in there, to kind of frame it. The whole shtetl thing, you go, right, Jews in a shtetl, and then you look at the prairie, in Minnesota, and...we kind of think, with some perspective, having moved out, what were we doing there? It just seems odd." Huh?

For the past quarter century, the Coens were just not into Jews. So when they finally attempted to mine their own Jewish background, their life-long lack of interest came back to haunt them.

Their Jewish tin ear has left them clueless as to how Jews really talk and interact and prevents them from understanding the characters they've constructed. As a result, the words they've put in their characters mouths simply don't ring true, which is a problem if truth is the essence of successful humor. They simply lack the insight into and knowledge of the Jewish psyche possessed by Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Larry David and Billy Crystal, or even writer/director Judd Apatow and Entourage's Doug Ellin.

Their normally compulsive eye for minutiae fails them here: A secular-minded Jewish physicist is unlikely to approach three rabbis for deeply personal advice, and wouldn't repeatedly refer to God as "Hashem" (the name), an expression used by the devout that likewise wouldn't ever be invoked by reform rabbis, certainly not in 1967 Minnesota.

This preoccupation with "Hashem" also mystifies Mordecai Spektor, editor and publisher of the Minneapolis-based American Jewish World, whose office is around the corner from the shul featured in the film. Spektor, a lifelong Minnesotan, says that this film falls far short of Fargo and Lebowski.

Larry's yentish wife wouldn't know what an "agunah" was, nor would a female friend be likely to offer Larry solemn consolation as follows: "It's not always easy, deciphering what God is trying to tell you." This same woman wouldn't possess the historical perspective to suggest that Larry find solace in the stories handed down by his ancestors for thousands of years. Just wouldn't happen.

Finally, the mysterious Santa Claus-like Orthodox rabbi wouldn't sit behind his desk handling a transistor radio on the Sabbath, and would never, ever turn away a Jew in distress, as he does Larry.

Which brings me to Michael Stuhlbarg's performance; what reviewers acclaim as "sublime," "subtle" and "deliciously underplayed," I see as very ordinary and one-dimensional. Larry's whiny countenance, pursed lips and confused expression never change, whether he's being sued for divorce or seduced by Mrs. Samsky, his nude sunbathing, pothead neighbor.

Many of the scenes were narrative cul-de-sacs. I can just hear Coen diehards countering that, well, that's precisely the Coens' point - there is no point, rhyme or reason, or that there's an underlying structure to events we can't discern, or all of the above. That's presumably why the Coens toss Schrodinger's Cat and Heisenberg's Uncertainly Principle into the mix. All is chaos, but wait, maybe it isn't. Get it?

Chaos or not, I certainly don't have to remind the Coens that successful scripts, like the Torah that is featured prominently here, rarely contain a single superfluous, purposeless episode. Each scene should be there for a reason, an integral part of the whole, since "danglers" leave the audience confused. Again, you suspect the two threw this thing together without their normal care.

So why the storm of accolades? Nell Minow of distills this accurately: "Meticulous and imaginative production design and a level of opacity far beyond most mainstream releases [are] often confused with profundity."

Likewise, a person who confesses to disliking or not "getting" a particular Coen Brothers flick could, in certain circles, be dismissed as someone less than clever or ironic or cool, and worst of all - hopelessly mainstream.

As a big fan, I look forward to The Yiddish Policemen's Union, their next project based on the acclaimed novel by Michael Chabon, who will hopefully be of some assistance in honing the Coen brothers' dull if un-hairy Jewish ear.



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