The most amusing tidbit I heard about A Serious Man before seeing it was this: "I don't think I was Jewish enough to get it." I can see how this might apply to the brief prologue, which is peppered with phrases like zohar and dybbuk, but beyond that I don't really see it. Anyone can relate to the string of misfortunes besetting A Serious Man's Larry Gopnik, a physics professor on the verge of tenure just when his private life starts going spectacularly off the rails, or at least grasp the movie logic of all this calamity.
Gopnik's teenage daughter steals from him, his bar mitzvah-aged son smokes weed and zones out at Hebrew school, his wife is leaving him for his best friend. His high-strung neighbor seems poised on the verge of violence toward him, and his other neighbor's wife has become an erotic distraction with her nude sunbathing. The professor's academic life isn't much steadier: A Korean exchange student whom he has given a failing grade starts causing problems, and someone has been writing nasty anonymous letters about him to the tenure committee. Gopnik is a pious and humble man, and God is totally messing with him.
Gopnik's story is, of course, the story of Job—paragon of perseverance in Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition. And since it's a Coen brothers movie, A Serious Man is full of obvious and not-so-obvious references and allusions. Like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it takes a potentially wearisome high concept (being a modern-day version of the Odyssey, for example, or a period piece illustrating a Bible story) and spins it into something much grander and more satisfying.
It can make for somewhat distracted viewing, though, staying alert to every wink and nod and trying to prevent any subtle symbol or reference from slipping through the net. But I wasn't aware of A Serious Man's scriptural underpinnings going into it, so at least the work didn't start right away. I admit I wasn't particularly excited about seeing this movie in the first place. Mostly because of the trailer, which derives its nerve-rattling martial cadence from the sound of a man's head repeatedly bashed against a locker or something. Very antagonistic.
Also, the trailer makes it pretty plain that the movie will mark one of those periodic returns to snarky misanthropy for the Coens—the kind of movie they seem to make two a year of over long weekends between bigger projects like O Brother and No Country for Old Men. The results can be mixed bags (Burn After Reading, The Ladykillers), but also usually fascinating for at least some of the right reasons. A new Coen brothers movie is always worth checking out.
Perhaps the Coens feel like they can take more of certain kinds of risks when their casts are merely speckled, rather than studded, with major star power. The cast of A Serious Man is like a rogue's gallery of peripheral players—actors whose faces you recognize but whose names you can't remember or never knew. The movie was filmed on location in the Coens' hometown, Minneapolis (Midwestern thrift and Minnesota tax incentives keeping costs down, no doubt), with a strong showing of locals rounding out the cast.
One rarely registers autobiographical elements in a Coen brothers movie, but A Serious Man must surely be full of them: doddering Hebrew teachers, supercilious rabbis, getting stoned in a yarmulke. This seems like a project the Coens have been incubating and refining for a long time, no doubt adding new details as they emerge from memory. For filmmakers otherwise so conspicuously lacking what might be called a Midwestern sensibility, a real nostalgia for this culture—Jewish Minneapolis circa 1967—shines through in A Serious Man. It's still snarky, but affectionate nonetheless.
Of course it's not perfect. The Coens don't always know when to stop making fun of their characters, and the effect of caricature piled upon caricature can be a little tiresome. At their best, they do a peerless job of portraying people as a bunch of self-absorbed digestive canals occasionally bumping into each other, but when they get lazy they settle for potshots. Almost everybody in A Serious Man is an easy target—a type, however carefully drawn. Michael Shulberg, as Larry Gopnik, manages to both over- and underplay the role of the hapless Gopnik—somewhere between a nebbish and a shmo.
A Serious Man may not be to everyone's liking, but it's a timely reminder of the Coens' vitality. And versatility. And artistic freedom; this is what directors get to do once they win Oscars. The ending is probably more satisfying if you know the story of Job. That's all I'm saying.
A Serious Man continues at the Wilma Theatre.