Over the weekend I finally got a chance to see the Coen Brothers latest release, A Serious Man. My initial reaction to the movie was a moderately enthusiastc “Meh.” However, after I started thinking about it I found myself becoming a bit annoyed and this morning I woke up thinking the film was a total failure. David Denby, who wrote one of the few negative reviews, sums up:
The movie is a deadpan farce with a schlemiel Job as a hero—Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physicist at a local university, whose life, in 1967, is falling apart. Gopnik’s wife (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for a sanctimonious bastard (Fred Melamed) who covers his aggressions against Larry with limp-pawed caresses and offers of “understanding.” Larry’s kids are thieving brats, and his hapless, sick, whining brother (Richard Kind) camps on the living-room couch and refuses to look for work. There’s more, much more, a series of mishaps, sordid betrayals, and weird coincidences, but Larry, a sweet guy and “a serious man”—upright, a good teacher, a father—won’t hit back. Occasionally, his eyebrows fluttering like street signs in a hurricane, he stands up for himself, but he won’t take a shot at anyone, or try to control anyone, verbally or any other way. He won’t even sleep with the dragon-eyed but sexy and highly available woman next door who sunbathes naked. (read the full review here)
The film is set up with what is supposed to be a Yiddish folktale. In the distant past, in a shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe, an old man, long thought dead, stumbles upon the house of a married couple. The wife is certain he’s dybbuk (a malicious spirit that possesses bodies) and she stabs him with a kitchen knife. So, many years later, Gopnik is paying the price of meddling with a dyybuk. Framed in this way, Denby is quite right to note, “Isaac Bashevis Singer would have been disgusted by the hero’s backing away from the babe next door.” The main characater, Gopnik, is a far cry from the existential crises of Woody Allen or Larry David, whose tradgedies are often brought on by themselves, but they continually resort to self-mockery to get over whatever predicament they are enmeshed in. The Coen Brothers vision of suburban Minneapolis is a gloomy, schizophrenic, and devoid of any real witty “zingers,” let alone intelligence. Rabbi’s offer banalities or simply miss the point of Gopnik’s predicament. The film drags on as we see Gopnik’s wife leave him, his kids ignore him, he pays for the funeral of his wife’s lover and on and on and on. We watch Gopnik as he grumps through the whole 1 hour and 48 minutes, periodically moaning “But I didn’t do anythng.” Though one of the gags that made me chuckle was when Gopnik is being hunted down by the billing department of the Columbia Record of the Month Club and he says, “I don’t want Santana’s Abraxas, I didn’t do anything!” To which the billing representative on the phone replies, “Yes, you need not do anything to receive the records of the month, and now you’re payment is four months behind.” The Coen’s could use a little Phillip Roth to offset the dullness.
Really though, my problem is that A Serious Man is just not a good retelling of the book of Job. Instead, we get the age old In a figure of “The Wandering Jew” and the “Jewy loser.” The idea of the former–a Christian malapropism– is that the wandering Jew is to suffer eternally until he either is somehow redeemed or dies, and thus, is at long last released from a life of misery. Without generalizing or speculating too much, perhaps that’s why the Coen Brothers film was so popular; Larry Gopnik is a”Wandering Jew”/ Job/ Jesus/Jewy loser type of figure who bears the burden of all the sins of humanity, accepts his suffering without any questioning and here’s the upshot: through all of this suffering, misery, and grumping Gopnik would (allegedly) “clean out” and “clean up” all that yucky sin of others.
Anyway, the Book of Job has been retold many times in Jewish literature. I can’t recall who wrote it, but in one retelling a Gopnik like figure reacts to the senesless torment and abuse of life with sheer passivity. When he reaches heaven the Gopnik like figure is lambasted for his utter lack of initiative and passivity. There’s a joke at the end, which I’m going to botch, but when in heaven the character is asked what he would like as a sort of compensation for his tribulations and he asks for a roll. This, of course, is met with uprorious laughter. I can’t remember who wrote this story, perhaps it’s Singer or Peretz. Probably not Sholem Alechiem. If anyone knows, let me know. There’s part of me that likes the sort of banality of evil one reads in the Book of Job (ignoring the happy ended added on by the Christians) and that the Coen Brothers get this right, but overall, the film just sort of missed the mark. Where is Gopnik yelling at God? Where is Gopnik turning away from God and the Jewish community? For me, at least, this aspect of the Book of Job makes it interesting. God can be kind of a jerk too. In the Coen Brothers version, well, boredom and sulkiness rules the day.