The Coen brothers’ ‘A Serious Man’: More Jewish than matzo balls?


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In the back pages of the press notes for the Coen brothers’ ‘A Serious Man,’ where filmmakers always tell you how environmentally sensitive they’ve been in the course of making the movie, we learn that ‘No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture.’ OK, it’s always good to hear that no one was physically harmed. But when it comes to being subjected to often merciless satire, there are a lot of Jews in this vaguely autobiographical account of the travails of a downtrodden, 1960s-era Jewish physics professor who takes it on the chin.

After seeing the picture myself last night, I’m betting that we won’t see many rabbis using the movie as a starting point for any Yom Kippur sermons. Focus Features, which is opening the movie Oct. 2 in New York, L.A. and Minneapolis (the Coens’ hometown), doesn’t want any reviews of the film up yet. So consider what I have to say as an appreciation, not a critique. I can certainly reveal this much: The rabbis in ‘A Serious Man’ take their lumps from the Coens, who seem to have saved up all the sarcastic remarks and deadpan dismissals they came up with as kids in Hebrew school and worked them into this movie’s comic portrayal of empty-headed rabbinical authority. I’m no expert on Judaism, but as someone who’s pretty familiar with Jewish filmmaking, I’d have to say that the Coens are in a category all of their own. Over the past half-century, we’ve seen all sorts of Jewish sensibilities grafted into our movies and TV shows, from the Borscht Belt mugging of Mel Brooks to the sleek one-liners of Neil Simon to the frat-boy raunch of Adam Sandler and the cranky self-involvement of Larry David. But the Coens are originals. ‘A Serious Man’ offers the occasional whiff of Woody Allen (from his ‘Deconstructing Harry’ era) and a definite kinship with Philip Roth (the movie has a bored, slit-eyed Jewish sexpot housewife who could be right out of ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’).


But the Coens are sui generis Semites. They practice the comedy of Jewish alienation. Having grown up in 1960s suburban Minneapolis, the offspring of two college professors (hence the whiff of autobiography in ‘Serious Man’), their attitude toward alienation is entirely different than if they’d come of age in Westchester or Woodland Hills. Although the film is ostensibly about a beleaguered professor whose life is falling apart (his wife is leaving him; his son owes money to a pot dealer; his daughter wants a nose job; his wonderfully weird, unemployable brother has set up camp on the living room couch), the character the Coens clearly identify with the most is the professor’s 13-year-old son, who seems uncannily like a 13-year-old version of Joel Coen (who would have been roughly the same age in 1967, the year in which the movie is set).

Bored and stoned most of the time, the kid bugs his dad to fix the TV antenna so he can watch ‘F Troop’ and passes the time in Hebrew class listening to the Jefferson Airplane on the earpiece of his transistor radio, which sets up one of great jokes of the movie, which I won’t give away, except to say that it somehow involves Grace Slick and an ancient, wonderfully inscrutable bearded rabbi. In ‘A Serious Man,’ we learn -- and I suppose you could call this one of the fundamental tenets of alienation -- that if you desperately look to wise men, in this case your local rabbis, for answers to the big questions in life, you’re bound to be disappointed. It’s a lesson the Beatles discovered at nearly the same time as this movie occurs, when they went to India to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who ended up being such a disappointment that he was roundly mocked in the White Album’s song, ‘Sexy Sadie.’

According to the Coens, ‘A Serious Man’ grew out of a story they wanted to tell about a bar mitzvah boy and a rabbi who was loosely based on a rabbi they knew as kids. As Ethan Coen described him: ‘This rabbi we knew was a sage, a Yoda. He said nothing, but he had a lot of charisma.’

In other words, he was the Coen brothers’ perfect idea of a spiritual leader.