The standard line on A Serious Man, and I see no reason to deviate from it, is that this is the Coen brothers’ most “personal” work to date. To be sure, the brothers have never been reduced to hired hands. They’ve always had the good fortune to be able to make the films they wanted to make, films that reflected their personal tastes and personal attitudes and personal interests and personal viewpoints. Still, in the strict autobiographical sense, their new film must be acknowledged as extra personal, set as it is in the Minneapolis suburb of their adolescence (Jefferson Airplane on the soundtrack to fix the date, “Somebody to Love,” 1967), in a Jewish household headed by a university professor with a son on the brink of his bar mitzvah.
I have insufficient biographical information to go much further than that, but it’s enough. Fargo, its title notwithstanding, was similarly set in Minnesota, albeit present-day. (Though the brothers here have wisely played down the regional accent they so mirthfully played up there. Been there, done that.) And the titular figure of Barton Fink was also explicitly Jewish, if only in heritage rather than in practice, and cut off from his roots. A Serious Man, however, trades the oblique approach for the direct pipeline, the exact place and the exact time and the exact “tribe.”
Part of the Coens’ good fortune, needless to say, has been their Oscars for No Country for Old Men (perhaps, as their first literary adaptation, their least personal work), sufficient Hollywood capital to enable them now to make what might appear, from a certain standpoint, to be a commercial throwaway, a commercial throat-cut, with no familiar names in the cast (Michael Stuhlbarg, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, Fred Melamed, et al.), and only a couple of familiar faces (Richard Kind, Adam Arkin, and I believe, although I couldn’t be sure, Michael Lerner, the studio head from Barton Fink, as a senior law partner who in long shot pitches over dead before he can utter a syllable), no concessions whatsoever to the marketplace, no distractions from or dilutions of the Coens’ vision. Purely personal. And inasmuch as the Coens are the undisputed stars of the show, the highest praise to be given the cast is that they one and all are at home in the brothers’ universe, fit into it comfortably, keep up the masquerade.
As one who grew up in an adjacent Minneapolis suburb with a few years’ head start, I can attest to the film’s value as an historical document, attest in particular to the plaid shirts and ankle-length pants, to the haircuts and glasses frames, to the lawns and houses, to the deer-hunting gentile neighbor, to the Coens’ eye and ear for local enterprises, the Red Owl supermarket, the Embers family restaurant, the Jolly Roger motel, the Log Cabin coffee shop, the Oak Knoll country club (my elementary school was in point of fact Oak Knoll). As one raised a Lutheran, leniently “confirmed” without completing my catechism, I must yield to the brothers’ view of the Jewish community.
I suspect that many Jews, grinning and bearing it, will have to do likewise, given the audacious depths of self-loathing on display. Some of them, I suspect further, might have a hard time doing so, and will not be mollified by the disclaimer at the end of the closing credits, “No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture.” (I find it telling that Landmark Theatres chose to open the film exclusively at the Hillcrest instead of their customary Jewish venue — Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, etc. — the La Jolla Village.) The filmmakers bring to the subject the unkind eye of the caricaturist. They demonstrate an acute and excruciating body awareness, the girth, the ear hair, the sebaceous cyst on the neck, the protagonist’s half squat at the classroom blackboard, his outthrust butt, his pant cuffs riding up to his calves. And their subtly bulging face shots and torso shots, fronted and centered, approach the freak-show aura of the photographs of Diane Arbus. The parade of surnames has a Dickensian grotesquerie all its own: Gopnik, Finkle, Marshak, Nachtner, Ableman, Schlutz, seldom a simple Shapiro. And the three rabbis of three different generations are hilariously ineffectual in three different ways. But to complain that the character portraits are not rounded, are slanted, would be to complain that a caricaturist is not a classicist, that Daumier is not Ingres. An artist has to be free to loathe. This is, it bears stressing at this point, a personal film. It is a document, not a documentary.
It is also — unexpectedly enough, as unexpected as the superstitious Old Country folk tale of the prologue and its old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio — a religious film, a film concerned not just with the specific religion of Judaism and its whole exotic lexicon, but with much broader religious questions, universal inquiries into life’s mysteries: what have I done to deserve this? what have I done with my life? what ought I to do? what am I here for? The 20th-century Job at the center of the film has his unfair share of afflictions: an unloving wife who demands a divorce, a mellow-toned peacemaking home wrecker (“No one is playing the blame game, Larry”), a freeloading brother with a gambling problem, a daughter who wants only to wash her hair and go out, a son whose sole use for his father is to fix the aerial so he can watch F Troop (the ration of four-letter words in the script is pretty much the exclusive property of wing-spreading adolescents), a grammatically enigmatic Korean student intent on buying an “A,” a tenure committee in receipt of defamatory reports on the teacher, a bill collector from a record club he had never joined, and more. Why? Why him? “I am not an evil man,” he objects. “I went to the Aster Art once. I saw Swedish Reverie.” (I went to the Aster many times. I saw Bergman’s Monika, Antonioni’s La Notte, Vadim’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, or more to the point, Harriet Andersson skinny-dipping, Jeanne Moreau’s nipple, and Annette Stroyberg barely covered up on a couch, respectively.) It’s true that when he’s on the roof fixing the aerial he can’t resist shifting his position to see over the fence of his nude sunbathing neighbor. And it’s true as well that he on one occasion is emboldened to ring her doorbell. But he has done nothing!
Doing nothing, or not doing anything, becomes a resounding refrain in the film. The straying wife and her bloated new soul mate claim to have actually done nothing (“This is not about whoopsy-doopsy”). The arrested brother declares that he too has done nothing. But doing nothing can have more than one meaning, “committing no transgression” but also “attaining no goal,” a defense on the one hand and a recrimination on the other. “Doing nothing,” the head of the Physics Department counsels the protagonist, “is not bad.” Yet doing nothing isn’t doing good, either. Wouldn’t doing good be better? Shouldn’t we be doing something? Such questions are not just to be taken away from the film but taken back into it for a second viewing. Keep an ear cocked.
Joel and Ethan Coen have long and lately devoted themselves to the vast panoply of human stupidity. Stretching out now, stretching back to Barton Fink, they have chosen to reassure us, although “reassure” doesn’t sound quite right, that an intelligent, educated, well-meaning, and would-be serious man, a man so earnest as to strain his voice continually at the upper reaches of its range, is no less at a loss. The Coens are often taken by their detractors to be nothing more than cold-hearted wisenheimers, and in fairness they often content themselves to pretend to be cold-hearted wisenheimers. But the pretense looks to me to be a form of modesty. Let the film speak for itself, and believe the pretense at your poverty. These are serious men.