Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), left, tries to act “adult” with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), his wife-stealing colleague.
By Robert Rosen
A Serious Man
A film by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Adam Arkin, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, and Amy Landecker
Yes, I include Yentl, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Ten Commandments in the above statement. Which is not to say these films aren’t ultra-Jewy (perhaps I should mention here that I’m Jewish)—they are, but in a fairy-tale-like way. They take place long ago and far away, either in shtetls in the “old country” that no longer exists, or in the ancient Holy Land.
While A Serious Man does indeed begin in a shtetl as the Coens channel Isaac Bashevis Singer with a story about a dybbuk—the wandering soul of a dead person who enters a living person—it quickly switches to the New World: a nameless Midwestern suburb circa 1967, which could be anywhere in America where Jews and Gentiles (called goys in the film) live side by side, if not exactly in harmony, then with a surface tolerance that, to interpret the dreams of the central character, Larry Gopnick, a physics professor, only covers up the murderous hatred the goyim feel for their Jewish neighbors.
In fact, all the adult characters are covering up turbulent (if not murderous) emotion by speaking in a flat and disaffected way that ultimately becomes irritating, making A Serious Man a movie about annoying, repressed people who tend to wear thin long before the film ends.
When Larry Gopnick’s wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), tells him she’s leaving him for his pretentious colleague, Sy Ableman, she expects Larry to take it in stride, act like an “adult,” move into a motel, and take his freeloading brother, Arthur (Richard Kind)—who may be a bum or a genius—with him. Gopnick does, and then sets out to seek in Jewish tradition the answers to unanswerable questions. As his world collapses around him, Gopnick consults three rabbis, and deals with a divorce lawyer (Adam Arkin), a hot neighbor (Amy Landecker) who sunbathes in the nude, a pot-smoking son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), whose only concern seems to be the quality of his TV reception, a dissatisfied daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus), who wants a nose job, a student who’s trying to bribe him for a better grade, and an impending decision on his tenure.
Yet, amid all this turmoil, A Serious Man’s depiction of modern American Judaism makes it almost documentary-like in a way that for me—in 1967 I was approximately the same age as the Gopnick children—is hyper-real. I’ve never seen a fictional film detail, often with lingering and loving close-ups, such things as numbingly repetitive Hebrew school lessons, the words on a Torah scroll, and the playing of a Haftorah record during a Bar Mitzvah lesson.
Like all the Coen brothers’ films, there are indeed hilarious moments, though the funniest bit is a disclaimer in the final credits: “No Jews were harmed in the making of this movie.” And like all their movies, A Serious Man is dark, with the smell of death always in the air.
While An Irritating Man would perhaps be a more accurate title, the film is, in the end, rescued by its offbeat quirkiness. There are no other movies I can think of where a great rabbi quotes Grace Slick, of the Jefferson Airplane, as if he’s quoting Holy Scripture. Still, a Hebrew/Yiddish glossary, like the one provided in the press material, may be required for full understanding.