Monday, November 16, 2009
Film Review | A Serious Man
I recently went to see A Serious Man, which takes place in a predominantly Jewish suburb in Minnesota in 1967. Interestingly, the film opens with a short scene from the shtetls of 19th century Europe just a few generations earlier. A husband and wife are visited by the ghost of their deceased neighbor. Neither can agree on whether the neighbor is indeed a dybbuk, and though the wife stabs the neighbor in order to remove the curse, the neighbor bleeds like a human yet walks calmly away. We are left with ambiguity, though the opaqueness of the scene promises a movie rife with profundity. To add to the intrigue, a proverb attributed to Rashi, the 11th century French rabbi, flits across the screen, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”
Of course, if anyone accepted their fate with anything like simplicity, there wouldn’t be much drama left for a film. The movie’s central character, Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), is a college professor and family guy with a cartload of troubles and more to come. His wife is in love with Sy Edelman, a widower who has no qualms about stealing another man’s wife and who shamelessly patronizes Larry every chance he gets. Larry’s dysfunctional brother lives in his house and on his dime. Larry’s bar mitzvah-age son smokes pot and gambles. There’s more. Larry’s tenure is in doubt due to anonymous letters denigrating his character, his neighbor is encroaching on his property, a student is blackmailing him into conferring a passing grade, and—perhaps worst of all--some recent x-rays have come back abnormal.
And so Larry asks the obvious question: why me? Thus begins his search for answers. He turns to faith, seeking explanations and solace from the three rabbis at his synagogue. None of the rabbis is portrayed as having much sympathy for Larry’s despair and alternately offer platitudes, nonsense allegories, or ignore him altogether. I had to wonder why it was necessary for the Coen brothers to portray these Jewish leaders as so disingenuous and uncaring. Was this a commentary on religion in general or are they expressing a complaint about the Jewish religion in particular? And while an uncritical, saccharine approach would hardly be appropriate, there was a decided lack of affection toward many of the film’s Jewish characters that seemed contrived and slightly vindictive, as though the Coen brothers had a bone to pick with their upbringing and were using the film to vent old resentments.
I think the protagonist, Larry Gopnick, illustrates my point well. The film’s title, A Serious Man, begs the question, Is Larry a serious man? His store of oft-depicted Jewish angst shows he’s serious, perhaps too serious. The less obvious question is whether he is really a man. Apparently not. Larry Gopnick fits the mold of many male Jewish characters who are short on masculine attributes. When Larry is approached by the Korean father of his bribing student, Larry’s bigoted gentile neighbor addresses Larry with, “Is this man bothering you?” as though Larry were a woman or a child in need of a real man for protection. Larry is feminized as he breaks down and weeps like a woman. He is passive under his wife’s scolding. He is physically overpowered by his wife’s lover. His neighbor steals his property in front of his face and his brother uses him. Larry is one more Jewish weakling to add to many others in filmdom and literature. I would have hoped for more originality from the Coen Brothers, but I’m also not especially surprised that stronger characters were lacking. Stereotypes are so engrained in our culture I continually have a debate with myself as to whether the people who create them in film and literature are aware of what they’re doing. At any rate, the story of the human condition, ultimately so unresolvable, could yet be told in a more realistic way. From the standpoint of Jewish characterization, the Coen Brothers have told the same old story.
There are, of course, fine performances in A Serious Man. There are moments of great humor, the suburban scenes resound with authenticity, and the Yiddish of the shtetl is heartwarming. A Serious Man is a film worth seeing and worth pondering, if only to discover one’s own foibles as we hope for answers only to discover there aren’t any. Or perhaps we all have to find our own way. But this is also a film without heart. Larry, who wants so much for himself, gives very little to his family other than a paycheck; he virtually ignores his children except to absently police them here and there. Jewish concepts of loving kindness and service toward others are strangely absent from this supposedly Jewish-themed movie. As the movie ends, a tornado approaches in an ominous black cloud. It was a darkness that seemed to follow me as I left the theatre.