A Serious Man: The Coen Brothers� Jewish Question

George Clooney portrays Ryan Bingham in a scene from Up in the Air
Michael Stuhlbarg stars in writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen's 1967-set A Serious Man
Wilson Webb / Focus Features

Stay through the end credits of Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man and you�ll find the disclaimer: "No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture." That statement is open to dispute, since most of the film's characters are Jewish — residents of suburban Minneapolis in 1967 — and just about all of them, it seems, are out to harm the Coens' hapless hero, college physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlberg), either intentionally or just by ignoring his mostly mute cries for help.

Not that the Coen brothers — who were raised in an academic Jewish family in Minneapolis, and were 13 and 10 respectively when the movie takes place — are self or other-hating Jews. But as filmmakers (and Oscar-winners, last year, for No Country for Old Men), they've always enjoyed anatomizing humanity's weak points and turning them into a kind of comedy. The lynch party, composed of Jews and gentiles, that assembles around Larry is full of these caricatures. And Larry was made to be intimidated, ignored, abused. He is a passive protagonist whose plight earns him as much pity as sympathy. So A Serious Man, which has its world premiere tonight at the Toronto Film Festival before opening in theaters Oct. 2, �is a rare event in movies, where action is character. It's certainly rare for the Coens, in that this is one fable �— Miller's Crossing might be another — that is worth taking seriously. (See The 10 Best Coen Brothers Moments)

In the two weeks leading up to his son's bar mitzvah, Larry is subject to a catalog of social crimes, small and large. His wife Judy (Sari Lennick) has become close with family friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed); she wants Sy to move in and Larry to stay at the Jolly Roger. Larry and Judith's son (Aaron Wolff) is slumming through Hebrew school and harangues Dad to adjust the rooftop TV aerial so F Troop can come in clearly. Their daughter (Jessica McManus) thinks only getting a nose job and washing her hair, which she can't do nearly enough of because Larry's live-in, layabout brother (Richard Kind) spends a lot of time in the bathroom medicating his neck cyst. �

At work, where Larry is up for tenure, a Korean student to whom he gave a failing grade leaves him an envelope full of bribe money; when Larry refuses, the student's father drops by to say he may sue the professor for defamation. The neighbor on one side is a belligerent, moose-killing goy; on the other side is not threat but temptation in the form of a pretty woman (Amy Landecker) who smokes pot while sunbathing nude. Anything else? Larry's legal bills are piling up, he just crashed his car, he needs to visit his doctor, and the guy from the Columbia Record Club keeps calling to dun him for a membership Larry never took out. According to those in his local synagogue, he isn't even the serious man of the title; that honorific goes to the oleaginous, wife-stealing Sy. Compared to Larry, Job had it easy.

Larry is a familiar figure from Jewish literature that dates back to the Old Testament and up to Bruce Jay Friedman's 1962 novel Stern, about a Jew who moves to the suburbs and endures a plague of abuse from neighbors and nature. The men at the center of Philip Roth's novels may rage and flail, but Larry doesn't dish out insults, he takes them. When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies, just suck it up and hope you don't explode. That's Larry's method of coping. In Stuhlberg's precise embodiment, Larry accepts all tribulations with a mouth pressed into pruny silence, as if �he had bitten into something rancid but doesn't want to be seen spitting it out. Wouldn't matter if he did: no one gives him a moment to articulate the psychic pains he harbors. (Read "Baffled After Seeing.")

The movie has no stars, few recognizable faces. And unlike so many American films, which cast gentiles in Jewish roles (Imelda Staunton, for example, as the stereotype mother in Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock, also about suburban Jews in the �60s), this one actually has ethnic-appropriate casting. The Jews here are sometimes broadly drawn — Larry's family slurps soup at a decibel level that even th4e Simpsons would find deafening — but they�re fully �assimilated,. Nobody says, "Oy vey!" or talks shtick. If �people answer a question with a question, the first would be Larry's plaintive "Why me?" when he seeks legal, emotional or spiritual help, and the second the world's "Who cares?"

As Fate keeps stomping him, he embraces Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. What he tells his class about the theory — "Even if you can't figure it out, you�re still responsible for it on the midterm" — applies, in spades, to his crumbling life. And yet for most of the movie he hangs in there, behaving honorably, seeking the wisdom of his ancestors, trying to observe the Jewish concept of Hashem. "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you," says Elie Wiesel's Rashi. To absorb God's body blows, this disquieting, haunting movie says, is to be fully alive. To do otherwise could kill you.

(Download TIME's New Mobile App for iPhone)

Quotes of the Day »

Get & Share
TERRY MORAN, ABC News reporter, inadvertently tweeting an off-the-record comment about MTV's Video Music Awards. ABC apologized
For use in rail of Articles page or Section Fronts pages. Duplicate and change name as necesssary to distinguish.

Time.com on Digg

POWERED BY digg

Quotes of the Day »

Get & Share
TERRY MORAN, ABC News reporter, inadvertently tweeting an off-the-record comment about MTV's Video Music Awards. ABC apologized

Stay Connected with TIME.com