If you thought being Japanese is hard work, try the Jewish life for a taste of something gut-wrenching — or so implies “A Serious Man,” created by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen.
Unlike Woody Allen, the Coen Brothers (“No Country for Old Men,” “Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Burn After Reading” to name a few) have never drawn on their Jewish heritage in a big way; but “A Serious Man” beats Allen at his own game, then goes far beyond, pitching the story into an abyss of deep, dark despair.
Self-deprecation is not a strong enough term to describe the rock-hard derision that both defines and suffocates the story like a mean old crocodile, refusing to budge. And as the Coens trot out one more unattractive sample of what they perceive as the Jewish condition after another, we stare in fascinated horror and fidget with discomfort.
A Jewish neighbor of mine used to say that the Jews valued life more than the rest of the world because they had the arrival of a savior to look forward to — but as far as “A Serious Man” is concerned, life isn’t exactly valuable so much as one big muck of fear and embarrassment. This is echoed in the recurring, plaintive utterance of titular character Larry Gopnick (a frighteningly effective Michael Stuhlbarg). “I need help,” he says with suppressed panic. “I’m serious, I need help right now!”
Larry’s not kidding. At work (Larry is a physics professor), he’s in danger of losing tenure. His son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), soon to be bar mitzvahed, is in a perpetual haze of Jefferson Airplane and pot. His daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus), steals from his wallet to fund a nose job. His unemployed and yucky brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), is crashing on his couch, or locked in the family bathroom tending to a cyst.
The capper is his Jewish-princess- gone-postal wife Judith (a hilarious Sari Lennick), who announces that she’s leaving him for the sly, unctuous Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed).
All of this unfolds against the backdrop of an isolated Jewish community in Minnesota circa 1967, which is the exact era and location of the Coens’ childhood. The brothers are going back to their roots and getting personal, but instead of sweet nostalgia and a celebration of family heritage, they’re staring down their past with cold contempt and suppressed guffaws, and inviting everyone to join in.
Not even Allen saddles his sorry, nerdy male Jewish leads with so many problems without a little gentile diversion in the form of a ditzy brunette (“Annie Hall” leaps to mind). Whatever else was plaguing Allen’s characters in their personal and professional lives, those guys always got their fair share of babes and then some.
No such luck for Larry, who’s too earnest for his own good, playing out the cliched irony that the more sober and well-meaning you are, the more God (aka HaShem, in the Jewish tradition) will punish you for being a clueless Jew. Remember what happened to Job? That’s Larry all over, minus the floods and cyclones maybe, but inching closer with each new scene to disaster of Old Testament proportions.
Larry’s world is a microcosm of a bigger picture — 1967 was when the ideal of American suburbia was something to strive for, and the white picket fence a metaphor for security and privilege. That the same fence was often holding back the waves of petty competitiveness, general dissatisfaction and unspeakable boredom emanating from the four-bedroom houses is a theme with which we’ve become familiar, courtesy of films such as “American Beauty” and “Revolutionary Road.” But in “A Serious Man,” the Coens (working from their original script) take away that familiarity: While the terrain may look the same, try to navigate it and you’ll feel the brutally thorny sides brush right up against your skin.
For all the pain inflicted (on Larry and the viewers), “A Serious Man” is brilliantly, sadistically funny: The Coens make sure you’re way out of your comfort zone but also giggling uncontrollably. A Japanese audience may appreciate this on a deeper gut level than an American one — we are, after all, no strangers to feeling bad, sad and guilty about our national identity. Still, the Japanese dilemma is no match for Larry’s no-exit misery that quickly ferments into panic.
In another 40 years, an iPad and 500 Facebook may cure many of Larry’s ills. And if only he’d lived in modern Japan, he could tune into AKB48, go out for octopus balls and keep the bad stuff at bay. But in Minnesota in the mid-20th century, there were no such nifty solutions. And this seems precisely the reason why the Coens are taking it all out on Larry.