Coen Bros ‘A Serious Man’: seriously skeptical of faith

The word on the new film, “A Serious Man,” directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (aka “the Coen brothers”) is that it is, well, ‘seriously’ Jewish.

Writing from the recent Toronto International Film Festival, Vanity Fair contributor Michael Hogan called the film “seriously awesome”; but not without a caveat on its Jewish themes: “I’m not usually a fan of things that are super Jewish,” he writes. “Jewish I like,” he admits, but, “all that Fiddler on the Roof crap?” No thanks.

Also at Toronto, Sharon Waxman interviewed the Coens for her Web site, The Wrap, and asked them if they thought the public would see the film as “too Jewish.” Joel was apparently un-amused by the question and simply rubbed his eyes. Ethan gave it a bored stab, ignoring its substance: “If we were going to make it at a budget that was not crazy, it wouldn’t be.”

“The vein of fatalistic, skeptical humor that runs through so many of [the Coens’] movies,” writes A.O. Scott in his New York Times review of the film, “has frequently had a Jewish inflection, both cultural and metaphysical. Here, that inheritance, glancingly present in movies like ‘Barton Fink’ and ‘The Big Lebowski,’ is, so to speak, the whole megillah.”

While ‘A Serious Man’ refrains from the kind of sappy, overindulgent Jewish shtick that makes “Fiddler on the Roof” so beloved by many Jews (and probably intensely nauseating for just as many non-Jews), it still remains deeply entrenched in a Jewish milieu.

Rumored to be based on the biblical story of Job, ‘Serious’ tells the story of Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor with a sweet-natured soul to whom bad things happen for no apparent reason. Gopnik lives a conventional yet depressing life among a Midwestern Jewish community that begins to fall apart when his domineering wife decides to leave him for a widower, a foreign-exchange student attempts to blackmail him for a passing grade, and the tenure board informs him that they have received unflattering letters about him, just as they are about to decide on his professorial future. Gopnik is also father to two self-involved teenages who largely ignore him and brother to a maudlin gambling addict who is threatened with arrest. When Gopnik is about to reach a breaking point, it is suggested to him that he go and see “the rabbi.” Gopnik then visits three rabbis, all of whom are either blithering caricatures, unavailable, or without real wisdom. None of them have an answer for Gopnik, which says something about the Coens’ attitude towards religion in general; it is unabashedly skeptical.

As Hogan notes, “All religion can tell him is that it’s God’s will. But is that really true? Why would God want to punish him this way? It’s impossible to say.” Hogan admires the film as “an extremely hard-headed meditation on love, faith, and destiny”—indeed, it is one without answers or rationale or even hope for divine redemption. That bad things happen in life is inexplicable and unavoidable, say the Coens, and religious faith is no real recourse for a man in need.

“What he encounters,” writes A.O. Scott, “apart from haunting music and drab suburban sacred architecture, is silence, nonsense and — from that metaphysical zone beyond the screen, where the rest of us sit and watch — laughter.” One of the biggest laugh lines in the film—that is oft repeated—is the expression of puzzlement that ensues when Gopnik’s wife insists on a “get”—a religious divorce document —“a what?” several characters reply, incredulously. The film is funniest when mocking many of the cultural norms experience by American Jews: boredom at services, ineffectual Hebrew schools and a near crippling fear of ascending the bimah for a B’nai Mitzvah (in the movie, Gopnik’s son nurses his anxiety with a drug induced haze).

The Coens may not have had the most enriching experience of Judaism—or religion—growing up as they did in a largely Jewish Minneapolis suburb in the 1960s, but the impact of their Jewish upbringing is evident. Secular, cultural Judaism is the lens through which they view the world, with all its bizarre and humorous idiosyncrasies, but alas, it is ultimately, a mostly empty enterprise. Are the Coens using the film to make a case for atheism? Scott wonders, “Are the Coens mocking God, playing God or taking his side in a rigged cosmic game?”

Well, they’re certainly working out some serious Jewish angst – Hollywood style.