We see a funnel cloud in the middle distance. A growing rumble. The tornado is approaching. At the first downbeat of its chorus, the Jefferson Airplane song “Somebody to Love” bumps up full. We cut to black and credits. With that juxtaposition of God-sent disaster and 1960s psychedelic rock and roll, The Coen Brothers, the best 2-headed filmmaker in Hollywood, bring to a close A Serious Man—a film that explores their Jewish roots in Minnesota. Not roots in the genealogical or autobiographical sense but from a removed and more philosophical perspective—what does it mean to be a Jew, both as a matter of social identity and as someone who is supposed to believe in God or Hashem, the word religious Jews invoke so as not to take the name of the Lord in vain. Hashem will roll so glibly off the tongues of the Coens’ Jews, it will seem more like affectation than piety.
Psychiatrists who are interested in faith and spirituality as healing parameters for the psyche will find little to admire in A Serious Man. Judging by this film, the Coens are Freudians in the agnostic tradition of The Future of an Illusion.
A Serious Man makes no commercial compromises for conventional audiences. Non-Jews who have no idea what a dybbuk is and have never been to a conservative bar mitzvah will be confused by its ethnocentrism. (Hashem will certainly stump them.) Some Jews, the kind who still cannot forgive Charles Dickens for the Fagin of Oliver Twist, will decide the film is “bad for the Jews” and will be offended by the 2-dimensional caricatures. They will miss all the mordant humor.
The Coens have tried in interviews to dispel the mistaken notion that A Serious Man is either their autobiography or social realism. True, it is set in a middle-class Jewish community in Minnesota during the 60s when they themselves were teenagers (Joel was born in 1954 and Ethan in 1957). True, the Job-like protagonist is a professor, as was their father, but the fictional Professor Gopnik (a masterful performance by Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physicist and their father was an economist. And quite unlike the fictional small-minded hausfrau Mrs Gopnik (Sari Lennick), their own mother was also a professor. And unlike the empty-headed bar mitzvah boy of the film Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff) whose life is made up of pot, “F Troop” on television, and rock and roll, the precocious Coen brothers (who may have shared Danny’s indulgences) flourished intellectually and artistically in their academic home and were already making 8-mm films together in the 60s. Joel later went to New York University film school while Ethan took a detour through Princeton where he majored in philosophy and wrote a thesis on the later works of Wittgenstein.
The brothers are themselves serious men who share that unhappy philosopher’s doubts about all forms of “truth,” leavened of course by their sense of humor. In A Serious Man, they have stepped back from the trajectory of their big budget, famous actor, Hollywood-sized movies. Brilliantly crafted and made with unknown actors who seem to have been born to play these roles, this film is sad and funny at the same time: the defining emotional dialectic of the Jewish sensibility.
Looking back at their earlier films from the vantage point of A Serious Man, one might argue that the “wicked” sense of humor seen in their best films (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Are Thou?) has always been a modern version of the tragic-comic spirit of Jewish gallows humor that runs through Kafka’s bleak stories, although in most of the great man’s work, it goes unrecognized by readers bent on the search for profundity.
The Coens’ hero, Professor Gopnik, is not like Gregor Samsa of Metamorphosis turned into a giant insect, but he is their specimen Jew whom they poke and prod to see how he will react. And like Kafka, this Coen film is fabulous. A Serious Man, in fact, begins with a fable set in one of the shtetls on the Polish-Ukrainian frontier. Filmed in sepia and spoken in Yiddish with subtitles, it is a fable invented by the Coens. An elderly stranger with a long straggly forked white beard is either the husband’s good Samaritan who helped him get the wheel back on his wagon on the lonely Lublin Road late at night, or—as his wife believes—an evil dybbuk inhabiting the body of Reb Groshkover who died of typhus 3 years earlier. So sure is the wife that she suddenly stabs the stranger in the heart with her ice pick. Was she right? The old man laughs hilariously—(here is black humor indeed)—and at first shows no effect; proving it seems that the wife’s action was justified. Then in the sepia colors of the film, a dark stain begins to show around the ice pick. The stranger, evil dybbuk or good Samaritan, staggers out the door, leaving the husband and the audience with their uncertainty about what actually happened.
The sepia fable gives way to a brightly lit Minnesota Hebrew school where the bar mitzvah boy, Danny Gopnik, ignores his boring teacher and listens to Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane on a transmitter radio connected by a cord to a white plastic earpiece. “Somebody to Love” is the Greek chorus of A Serious Man. Scenes of Danny at Hebrew school and his father at his annual medical examination are intercut. Father and son are the protagonists of the film. Larry Gopnik is a singularly unassertive physics professor, he demands and gets no respect; his wife, who wants a divorce so she can marry the repulsive Sy Abelman, walks all over her husband and acts as though she is the injured party. His daughter is the embodiment of vanity; she does nothing but wash her hair and wait for the day she will get her nose fixed. And Danny treats his father like a TV repairman who should be at his beck and call to climb up on the roof and adjust the antenna so that “F Troop” will be less fuzzy. While his family gives him nothing but grief, the professor is up for tenure; a Korean student is trying to bribe or sue him
to raise a failing grade; his non-Jewish, deer-hunting neighbor is annexing part of his house lot; and his strange unemployed brother has moved into his living room.