Larry takes call in lawyer's office.

Larry takes call in lawyer's office.

For me, part of being Jewish is always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Even in the best of times, I always have a nagging little voice in my head telling me to be vigilant and “Never Forget.” The Coen Brothers’ new film A Serious Man is about a man named “Larry Gopnik” who lets his guard down and grows complacent… until heartbreaking but hilarious consequences ensue.

Marital and professional clouds have long darkened Larry’s skies, but he’s been oblivious. Now they’ve suddenly coalesced into a “perfect storm.” Confused, disheartened, and eager for answers, Larry books appointments with various Rabbis, and plays the same mournful Yiddish tune over and over on his Hi-Fi.

The Coen Brothers depict the strengths and weaknesses of Jewish tradition with great affection, and create a world filled with Jews (for the very first time after more than a dozen films made over a span of twenty-five years). Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all know these archetypes—they haunt us in our dreams. Unlike Larry, we all know how far we’ve strayed from the path of righteousness. Over and over again, Larry responds to new crises with the same words: “But I haven’t done anything.” Could that be the source of his problems?

For sure, you don’t have to be Jewish to laugh through your tears at Larry’s predicament, but the screenplay, the set design, and the sound mix are so detailed and specific that even members of the mishpokhe might miss things.

For example, the story clearly takes place in 1967, but when? My best guess is late May… in other words… right before the outbreak of the Six Day War. Do the Coen Brothers intend this? Well, maybe not, but is it just coincidence that they’ve pinpointed the exact moment most Jewish-Americans flipped their emotional allegiance from Yiddish to Hebrew and began to speak out for Israel?

You won’t find any Holocaust references in A Serious Man either, and yet… The climax of the film is the Bar Mitzvah of Larry’s son Danny. A big suburban synagogue is stuffed with friends and neighbors, but where are the grandparents? It’s 1967 and Larry is somewhere in his forties, so where was he in the ‘40s? And just who are the people in the prologue (filmed on a set straight out of Fiddler on the Roof)? Maybe the dybbuk helped kick Larry’s ancestors across the Atlantic, from one snowy shtetl to another, just in the nick of time?

Larry spends his days explaining “Schrödinger’s Paradox” to bored college students, while his brother Arthur is hard at work on The Mentaculus (revealed to be graphorrhea comprised of numbers and mathematical symbols sprinkled with random Hebrew characters). By what measure is one brother really more sane than the other?

Like the dentist shown combing for clues in the Zohar, we’ve been lured into asking questions that will never have answers. You don’t have to be Jewish to see the advantage of billing by the hour, but as Larry’s legal bills multiply it’s clear it doesn’t hurt!

© Jan Lisa Huttner (10/2/09)  Click HERE to read Jan’s chat with actor Michael Stuhlbarg.

A Physicist on the Roof...

A Physicist on the Roof...

A message to my schvesters:  This is an all-male universe whose main characters–Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg), Danny (Aaron Wolff), & Arthur (Richard Kind)–interact with numerous Rabbis,  lawyers, policemen, teachers, students, colleagues, & on & on, right up to the all male Bemah at Danny’s Bar Mitzvah.  Even Larry’s wife Judith is little more than a handmaiden in this tale.  This doesn’t bother me precisely because it marks how far we’ve come in the interim.  Me?  I entered 5770 with a very large Chicago congregation lead by a female Rabbi who was supported by a female Cantor, & ya know what… everything went just fine!

Click HERE to read an interview with Joel & Ethan Coen in the FORWARD.

Click HERE for the lyrics to Dem Milerns Trern (The Miller’s Tears) by Mark Warshavsky.

Chicago YIVO board member Jan Lisa Huttner is the Arts & Culture critic for Chicago’s JUF News.

All Photo Credits: Wilson Webb courtesy of Focus Features.

3 Responses to “A SERIOUS MAN”

  1. Joel Harlib Says:

    I left a comment and would welcome comments

  2. chicagoyivo Says:

    Posted for Joel Harlib:

    Hi Tzivi,

    I enjoyed the film and found it very entertaining, insightful and philosophical. I thought that the old Rabbi said it best.



  3. chicagoyivo Says:

    Message from Jan in response to feedback from someone who felt A SERIOUS MAN was “critical of the Jewish people”:

    I’m afraid we’re just going to have to agree to disagree about this because I do NOT believe A SERIOUS MAN is critical of the Jewish people, in fact, I believe it’s Jewish in the best sense: the moral is that WE are responsible for what we do AND what we do not do, & the line “but I didn’t do anything” is the litany of “the bystanders” (that is, those who abet the perpetrators & without whom the perpetrators would lose their power).

    All best,

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