Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

A Serious Man


The Coen Brothers’ film Fargo begins “Based on a true story.” It’s not. This one begins with a vignette that has absolutely nothing to do with the main story. The Coens like to mess with your head like that, and they make films like no one else, and 90% of the time I love them. This is one of those times. It takes place in about 1967, a time I recall fondly, and they have really nailed the look of the suburbs of the era.

Another Coen film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? was broadly based on The Odyssey, and this one seems to have been inspired even more broadly by the Book of Job. It concerns a good man who bad things happen to. Larry Gopnik spends most of the picture trying to understand what it is Hashem (God) wants from him. He is your archetypal schlemiel. A schnook. (Isn’t Yiddish a wonderful language?) He consults a rabbi, then another, and the best they can come up with is, “Who knows?”

And, oh, brother, the people he’s surrounded with! Within the first thirty minutes I got a better understanding of why somebody might suddenly grab a pistol and start killing everyone in sight. His permanent houseguest brother is a whining crybaby, a total loser. His daughter spends all her time washing her hair, if she can liberate the bathroom from its permanent occupation by the brother. (“Out in a minute!” he shouts a dozen times.) His son cares about nothing but adjusting the TV antenna so he can see “F Troop” and getting seriously fucked-up on grass. He’s stoned at his Bar Mitzvah. His wife is cold and angry about something he doesn’t understand, and is leaving him. She wants a gett. (“A what?” everyone asks. A ritual divorce. Oh, a gett.)

She’s leaving him for Sy Ableman (Sy Ableman, that putz? everyone asks), brilliantly portrayed in one of the most teeth-grating performances I’ve ever seen by Fred Melamed. I mean, thirty seconds after he appeared I wanted to drag him out to the parking lot, kick him in the nuts, break both his arms, and knock out all his teeth. Now do you want to hug and talk it all over, you loathsome putz? And I’m not a violent man! I’ve never done any of those things to anybody! But this is the mid-sixties, and he’s one of those touchy-feely gumballs who wants to give you a hug, who invades your personal space, whose every statement is so goddam reasonable that you’d be an ingrate to disagree with him. This, from the man your wife is divorcing you so she can be with him!

This may be the most Jewish movie I’ve ever seen, including some from Israel. These are not the funny-hat Jews (clothing is a good rule of thumb for judging how weird, ingrown, insular, and stupid a religion is, particularly hats; with Mormons it’s underwear), but they are orthodox, and a lot of their lives revolve around religion. Some have accused the Jewish Coens of ridiculing Jews. Well, so what? They kidded Texans, Minnesotans, and plenty of others. Why not Jews? From my perspective as an atheist they are pretty silly. As are, I hasten to add, all other religions.

As always, every character has something quirky about him, and as in most of their films, they don’t care about what other people consider the right timing for a scene. This annoys some people, but I find it a welcome change from cookie-cutter directing and editing. I can see why actors love working with them; it gives them a chance to stretch out. It’s not their best film, but it’s up there in the top 20%. With the Coens, that means it’s better than 99% of Hollywood’s output.