Perhaps you don't need to be Jewish to grasp what Joel and Ethan Coen attempt with their latest film, A Serious Man. But, as stereotypes inhabiting this strange, distancing movie would say, it couldn't hurt.
I'm not Jewish so, in deference to someone who is — and makes fine movies on the subject — I turned to Aviva Kempner (Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg), who told me in a recent interview that A Serious Man is an example of "Jewish filmmakers who I don't think have a good sense of pride about their people."
Harsh judgment, but scene after scene in A Serious Man makes me think Kempner is onto something.
Described by other critics as a dark comedy, the Coens' movie contains little that's comedic or any shade beyond dull gray. It is confirmation of an image of devoted fatalism that many Jews reject, of devotion to God that goys consider drudgery, of borscht belt comedians spinning downbeat yarns, then the punch line: "Well, at least you have your health."
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) may not even have that at the climax of A Serious Man. Lord knows he has suffered enough to deserve it. Larry's shrewish wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), demands a divorce, in order to marry their best friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who's obnoxiously nice about the situation. Larry's possible tenure as a professor is endangered by anonymous letters to the university accusing him of moral turpitude, and a student bribing him for a passing grade, or suing him if he won't accept.
Larry's son Danny (Aaron Wolff) smokes pot, his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) steals money for a nose job, and his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is house squatting while displaying disturbing tendencies. Larry is a good man. Bad things keep happening to him, and Larry suspects God is behind it all.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, you've been reading the Bible. The Coens turn Larry into a modern-day Job (actually 1967), but even Job eventually caught a break. Larry is simply fate's punching bag, too timid to do anything about it that someone else doesn't recommend. Even three rabbis can't offer solace, and a final shot of impending doom declares none is possible.
A Serious Man is supposedly the Coens' most personal film, set in their suburban Minneapolis neighborhood when they were around Danny's age. You have to wonder why they'd revisit a time and place they apparently don't recall fondly.
Maybe this movie is their penance, or maybe retribution. Either way, such a downbeat, impregnable movie becomes increasingly difficult to sit through. But at the end, at least we have our health.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.