A Serious Man: The Coen Brothers' Jewish Question

Not that the Coen brothers are self- or other-hating Jews, but as filmmakers they've always enjoyed anatomizing humanity's weak points and turning them into a kind of comedy

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Wilson Webb / Focus Features

Michael Stuhlbarg stars in Joel and Ethan Coen's 1967-set A Serious Man

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Larry is a familiar figure from Jewish literature that dates back to the Old Testament--you remember Job--and permeates modern fiction, from the schlimazels of Isaac Bashevis Singer's tales to Bruce Jay Friedman's Stern (from his 1962 novel), who moves to the suburbs and endures a plague of abuse from neighbors and nature. In Stuhlbarg's precise and poignant portrayal, Larry accepts all tribulations with a mouth pressed into pruny silence, as if he has 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.

Unlike so many American films, which cast Gentiles in Jewish roles, this one has mostly ethnic-appropriate casting. And the characters may have a few stereotypical tics--Larry's family slurps soup at a decibel level that even the Simpsons would find deafening--but they're fully assimilated. Nobody says "Oy vey!" or talks shtick. If anyone answers a question with a question, it would be Larry's plaintive "Why me?" when he seeks legal or spiritual help, followed by the world's "Who cares?"

As Fate keeps stomping him, Larry embraces Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. What he tells his class about the theory--that even if they can't figure it out, they're still responsible for it on the midterm--applies, in spades, to his crumbling life. Yet he's trying to hang in there, to behave righteously, to observe the precepts of his faith. The movie opens with a line from a Talmudic scholar, Rashi: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." If the Coens are for once being serious, then in this hard-to-shake, ultimately haunting movie, they're saying that to absorb God's body blows is to be fully alive. To do otherwise ... well, it could kill you.

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