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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

A Serious Man (review)

Harah Happens

It’s hard to know sometimes whether the Coen Brothers are… well, not pulling our collective leg, because it’s pretty clear that they’re authentically earnest with all their films, even the goofy ones (maybe even more so with the goofy ones.) But are they actually daring us, with each new film, to keep coming along with them? Are they trying to push us and their art so far that we’ll eventually just give up, just throw up our hands in frustration and say, “Bah!”?
If that’s what they want, they’re gonna have to try a lot harder, because they still haven’t succeeded here. A Serious Man could be a serious challenge to many a filmgoer, even those who look for more than exploding robots and emo vampires from their flicks. It has no stars — a brief cameo from Adam Arkin aside, character actor Richard Kind will be the most familiar face in any substantial role. It’s more Jewish — in a nation only 2 percent Jewish, and a world only .2 percent Jewish — than almost any other film could ever be called “Christian.” It’s more philosophical than most moviegoers will have any patience for. And if ever a film had a point, this one’s is: “Life is pointless, and so is this movie. Oh, and if God exists, he’s a bastard who is, at best, ignoring us, and at worst, is actively fucking with us. Enjoy!”

For this, we go to the movies?

Well, yeah. True lovers of film as something to provoke thought and stimulate emotion in ways that go beyond mere visceral reaction will thrill to Man — this is so unclassifiable a film that even thinking about how to categorize it will lead you down a dozen different and conflicting tangents from which to consider it, none of which are contradictory and all of which are wonderfully surprising. In places the film is droll but melancholy. In others it’s hilarious yet heartbreaking. In all, it’s ironic but sincere. We could even call it postsnark, as if the Coens (Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men) are using the posture of sarcasm and satire that we’ve come to know so well in recent years — not just from these guys but as the dominant outlook of thoughtful films for the last decade or more — and finally made us understand that, Look, they’re not kidding: they’ve got serious questions and serious concerns and they’d like some goddamn answers from the management, even though they know, somewhere deep down that doesn’t want to acknowledge it, that there are no answers to be had, and probably no management in charge.

How they go about expressing this most modern of angst — this could be, attitudinally, the first movie of the second decade of the 21st century — is through their new Job, physics professor Larry Gopnik, who, in 1967 Minneapolis, finds himself suddenly under metaphysical attack on all sides. His wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), wants a divorce. His brother, Arthur (Kind: For Your Consideration), is leeching off his hospitality. His hoped-for upcoming tenure at the university is threatened. His teenaged kids, Danny and Sarah (Aaron Wolff and Jessica McManus), ignore him. His sexy neighbor, Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker: Dan in Real Life), tempts him. Everywhere he turns, poor Larry is besieged — New York theater actor Michael Stuhlbarg is so utterly sympathetic as Larry, so yearning for relief that you cannot help but ache for him.

This totally originally creation of Joel and Ethan Coen — they wrote the script, not based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy or anyone else — is semiautobiographical, distilling the ethos and atmosphere of their Midwestern childhoods in an intellectual Jewish community in the late 1960s… or so they’ve said, and there’s no reason to doubt them. What they may not realize is that right here, in this story, we may have the key to understanding the Coens’ entire oeuvre. The way the boys highlight Larry’s pain and his quest for help is so bursting with ridiculous pathos that the whole endeavor becomes elevated and noble and preposterous and inconsequential all at once. You think you’ve got troubles? Larry is getting harrassing phone calls from the Columbia House Record Club demanding money for albums he never ordered! And his doctor is calling about those troubling X-rays. And the three rabbis Larry seeks out have bupkis to comfort him. Life sucks, God doesn’t care about you, and there’s no reason for anything that happens. Might as well get used to it.

Hopeful? Actually, it kinda is. I’m sure there are jokes and nuances I didn’t get because I’ve never studied Torah and have never been terrorized by a rabbi who tells useless parables in the mistaken belief that this would make my troubles disappear. But at least now I get Barton Fink. I think…


MPAA: rated R for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • JT

    Excellent review and a truly great film that begs to be watched and studied over and over.

    Hashem is the Anton Chigurh of 2009.

  • m

    Being an orthodox Jewish girl, I’ll just come right out and say that I hate how Jews are represented in film/literature/TV/etc. As if “Jewish” means one thing, that it doesn’t encompass a spectrum wider than the Pacific Ocean – one of my brother’s professors at Princeton once said that when he hears people talk about “the Jewish point of view” he wants to make them write a paper in Latin, which has no definite article.

    Also, from what I’ve heard (I know, I shouldn’t be commenting on a movie I haven’t seen, but it’s not in my theater), the rabbi in the film comes across as the biggest buffoon, which is pretty offensive. Any decent rabbi with half a brain knows better than to give you mumbo jumbo when you need solid advice. But I suppose it would be a real challenge to make a compelling spiritual figure in a film so set on “Life sucks.”

  • seeing as the Coen brothers are of Jewish cultural background themselves, perhaps they are merely expressing their own experiences with their spiritual upbringing. much as Frank McCourt did with his irish upbringing — his bitter and unhappy experiences with the christian brothers and the religious in his life caused quite the uproar among the irish “community” — which is also not one big homogeneous grouping with all members having the same thoughs and experiences. however, there are cultural touchstones that can be generalized among almost any grouping — otherwise, what makes them a group?

    and having been a religious and spiritual person at one time, i can say that there are many small, petty and mean minded religious educators and spiritual “advisors” and guides. and many times the religion itself fails an individual in moments of crisis. such experiences are just as valid as good experiences.

  • bitchen frizzy

    –“seeing as the Coen brothers are of Jewish cultural background themselves, perhaps they are merely expressing their own experiences with their spiritual upbringing.”

    Probably true, and I haven’t read anything where they claim otherwise. But when MaryAnn – and a lot of other nonJewish (is that a word?) critics – praise this movie as “More Jewish than…”, etc. etc. about how Jewish this movie is, than maybe they aren’t accurately describing it.

    Is the POV of disillusioned ex-Jews (are the Coens ex-Jews?) normative enough to be described as spot-on “Jewish”? When a Jewish poster says that it’s not, should we non-Jews take her POV seriously? I dunno. Maybe I’ll see this one so I can know what I’m talking about.

  • MaryAnn

    Can’t a movie be Jewish without pretending to encapsulate the entirely of Judaism? Because this movie *is* Jewish, but it isn’t attempting to speak for all Jews. It’s just sharing one perspective that does happen to be Jewish.

    I don’t think it’s right to say that I “praised” the movie for being Jewish. I don’t think that’s anything to “praise.” I was merely describing the movie. See it for yourself and tell me if I’m wrong.

  • slinberg

    You figured out “Barton Fink”? Will you explain it? I’m still stumped.

  • MaryAnn

    Clearly, the point of *Barton Fink* is that it has no point. :->

  • But when MaryAnn – and a lot of other nonJewish (is that a word?) critics – praise this movie as “More Jewish than…”, etc. etc. about how Jewish this movie is, than maybe they aren’t accurately describing it.

    Or perhaps they’re doing what movie-goers do so often with movies about groups other than the one they’re in–recognizing the part they identify with and disregarding the rest.

    Then again it does seem like a bit of a stretch to argue that this one flick is more Jewish than say, Fiddler on the Roof or The Chosen or even Annie Hall.

    I’ll withhold further “oy, veys” until I have a chance to see the movie.

  • LaSargenta

    Nitpicker here:

    Can we acknowledge that although the majority of jews in the US are of Ashkenazi (ie: eastern european, yiddish-speaking) descent, that is NOT the sum of “jewish”?

    Signed, the descendant (partially) of SICILIAN jews who, oddly enough, didn’t speak yiddish and have some different folktales and traditions. And, no according to members of the family they weren’t Sephardim either as those are jews from Spain.

  • bitchen frizzy

    –“Can we acknowledge that although the majority of jews in the US are of Ashkenazi (ie: eastern european, yiddish-speaking) descent, that is NOT the sum of “jewish”? ”

    Readily acknowledged, and I see your point wrt the movie. But I do need to see movie before I can know what to say to your observation.

  • MaryAnn

    Hey, my Irish ancestors were Briscoes, who are Jewish. So does that mean I get to claim some Jewishness?

    I’m kidding. But I’m not kidding when I say that we can say that, for instance, *The Passion of the Christ* is very Christian without intending to specify that it encompasses everything that it means to be Christian.

    Then again it does seem like a bit of a stretch to argue that this one flick is more Jewish than say, Fiddler on the Roof or The Chosen or even Annie Hall.

    Who is saying this? Did I say this?

  • @bitchen frizzy: When a Jewish poster says that it’s not, should we non-Jews take her POV seriously? I dunno.

    except that the poster herself says that all jews and all jewish experiences are not are not the same. so, she we take her POV as any more valid than the POV of any other jew? religious or otherwise?

    the experience — as a jew — of an orthodox jewish woman (as she claims to be) probably cannot be the same as that of a jewish woman of the reformed movement, or a hassidic woman, even though they share the same holidays and basic theological background. ashkenazic jews (the most common european background of jews in the US) do not share some of the cuisine or even some of the cultural expression of holiday celebrations in common with sephardic jews. ethiopian jews in israel certainly have a different background than their hassidic cousins.

    all their experiences — good and bad — are valid. whether the expression of that experience by writers, artists or film makers irritates different members of the same group is really not the problem of the artis to address.

  • bitchen frizzy

    –“all their experiences — good and bad — are valid.”

    Ah, but are they equally valid? If so, then you’ve mooted everything with a tautology. But then, there’s no “group,” because how can you define the group without normative experiences, not merely a collection of equally valid experiences?

    When I go to see this movie, I understand that I’ll hear the Coen version of rabbis’ answers to questions. Should I assume that because the Coens are Jewish the characters’ answers are the same as what I would get from an actual rabbi? If the answers differ, should I accept without question the simulacrum as being just as valid as the reality?

  • m

    I guess maybe what bothers me most about oversimplified and often unsympathetic portrayals of Jews (primarily rabbis) in film is that, on the other hand, we can find a good movie like “Traitor” that will do its best to find nuance in a complex situation and create sympathetic (if necessarily simplified) portraits of generally unsavory folks such as Muslim terrorists. That movie, incidentally, was made by (among others) people with last names like Nachmanoff, Schlesinger, and Lieberman – clearly Jewish names. I just wish the Jews in Hollywood would put out an equally nuanced portrait of Jews someday. Or maybe I’ll have to wait until the Muslims in Hollywood decide to make it.

  • MaryAnn

    @bitchen frizzy: When a Jewish poster says that it’s not, should we non-Jews take her POV seriously? I dunno.

    except that the poster herself says that all jews and all jewish experiences are not are not the same. so, she we take her POV as any more valid than the POV of any other jew? religious or otherwise?

    And also: the poster says *she has not seen the film.*

    M, please see the movie, and then let us know whether you think anything about it is “oversimplified,” “unsympathetic,” and not nuanced.”

    I understand that I’ll hear the Coen version of rabbis’ answers to questions. Should I assume that because the Coens are Jewish the characters’ answers are the same as what I would get from an actual rabbi?

    The Coens aren’t suggesting that they’re speaking for all Jews, or all rabbis, or all anything. I’m surprised that anyone is attributing such a thing to filmmakers like the Coens.

  • Then again it does seem like a bit of a stretch to argue that this one flick is more Jewish than say, Fiddler on the Roof or The Chosen or even Annie Hall.–Tonio Kruger

    Who is saying this? Did I say this?–MaryAnn Johanson

    Okay, I obviously exaggerated a wee bit but when I read quotes like this:

    It’s more Jewish — in a nation only 2 percent Jewish, and a world only .2 percent Jewish — than almost any other film could ever be called “Christian.”

    It’s hard not to get the impression that you’re calling this flick the ultimate Jewish movie.

    My bad.

  • martin burnham

    great review, maryanne. you are so right to say it is unclassifiable- not just as a film, but as a story in general. I mean it’s tragic in a real life (and very biblical) sense, but the way it’s told, the way it ends, it’s so… unfulfilling and discomforting, yet completely whole and real.
    a very, very different sort of story. i need to see it again.

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