My father-in-law is right about Coen Brothers movies: Each features some interesting comedic nugget or stylistic detail to gnaw on.
And in fact there are several such signature Coen-ish nuggets in A Serious Man, their latest and wildly anticipated first "Jewish" film: the furniture, appliances, hair-dos, wardrobes, sedans, split-levels and manicured lawns - all perfect in time and place. The Coens also saw it vital to employ "Jewy" items such as large and hairy moles, ears and nostrils.
This tale of serial disaster has been gushed over by reviewers across the land, who've been competing for dwindling superlatives. For The Los Angeles Times, it's the Coens' "most personal, most intensely Jewish film, and their most universal." The filmmakers' hometown Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune described it as a "brilliant balance of presentation and substance." Time Out New York's reviewer ordered readers to "see this film immediately." According to on-line film review warehouse rottentomatoes.com, the consensus opinion of 80 of 93 reviewers was that the work was nothing short of "their most mature, if not their best - film to date."
Here's the thing: Aside from the enigmatic opening eight-minute segment, featuring a Yiddish-language Polish shtetl yarn about a dybbuk, don't buy the hype.
SET IN the Coens' own suburban hometown in Minnesota, the film follows the Job-like disintegration of Larry Gopnik, a bespectacled wimp of a junior physics professor.
Hyperventilating adjectives notwithstanding, A Serious Man is a serious flop. Since opening over three weeks ago, it's generated box office receipts of about $3 million on a reportedly puny budget of $7 million. Why? Because this movie is entirely about Jews. And the Coen Brothers have never been really into Jews.
A story is doomed to failure unless its creators find its subject matter compelling. The fact is, with the exception of the odious title character in Barton Fink (John Turturro) and The Big Lebowski's gregarious, if peripheral, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), the Coen brothers have cinematically ignored their Jewish background.
With the exception of Barton Fink, the brothers have peopled their off-kilter dark farces with goyim of the windswept American interior, constructing wonderfully absurd, dark and surreal tales with a restraint that makes the madness seem perfectly plausible.
Well known for the careful crafting of their movies, it occurred to me about halfway into the film that the script seemed slapped together. David Edelstein of New York magazine liked the movie, but had the same impression: "I got the feeling they had little idea what they would end up with when they sat down to write."
This suspicion is intensified by another, especially incoherent comment of Joel Coen's at the Toronto press conference: "The whole shtetl thing, maybe this is part of why we put the little beginning story in there, to kind of frame it. The whole shtetl thing, you go, right, Jews in a shtetl, and then you look at the prairie, in Minnesota, and... we kind of think, with some perspective, having moved out, what were we doing there? It just seems odd."
Their lack of interest in their own people has left the Coens with a Jewish tin ear, rendering them clueless as to how Jews really talk and interact, and prevents them from understanding the characters they've constructed. As a result, the words they've put in their characters mouths simply don't ring true, which is a problem if truth is the essence of successful humor. They simply lack the insight of a Woody Allen, Larry David or a Billy Crystal, or even writer/director Judd Apatow and Entourage's Doug Ellin.
THEIR NORMALLY compulsive eye for minutiae fails them here: A secular-minded Jewish physicist is unlikely to approach three rabbis for personal advice, and wouldn't repeatedly refer to God as "Hashem," an expression used by the devout that likewise wouldn't be invoked by reform rabbis, certainly not in 1967 Minnesota.
This preoccupation with Hashem also mystifies Mordecai Specktor, editor and publisher of the Minneapolis-based American Jewish World, whose office is around the corner from the shul featured in the film. Specktor, a lifelong Minnesotan, says this film falls far short of Fargo and Lebowski.
Larry's yenta-ish wife wouldn't know what an aguna was, and another female friend wouldn't console Larry thus: "It's not always easy, deciphering what God is trying to tell you," or suggest that he find solace in the stories handed down by his ancestors. Just wouldn't happen.
Finally, the mysterious Santa Claus-like Orthodox rabbi wouldn't sit behind his desk handling a transistor radio on the Sabbath, and would never, ever turn away a Jew in distress, as he does Larry.
Many of the scenes were narrative cul-de-sacs. I can just hear Coen diehards countering that, well, that's precisely the Coens' point - there is no point, rhyme or reason, or that there's an underlying structure to events we can't discern, or all of the above. That's presumably why the Coens toss Schrodinger's Cat and Heisenberg's Uncertainly Principle into the mix. All is chaos, but wait, maybe it isn't. Get it?
Chaos or not, I certainly don't have to remind the Coens that successful scripts, like the Torah that is featured prominently here, rarely contain a single superfluous, purposeless episode. Each scene should be there for a reason, an integral part of the whole, since "danglers" leave the audience confused. Again, you suspect the two threw this thing together without their normal care.
So why the storm of accolades? Nell Minow of beliefnet.com distills this accurately: "Meticulous and imaginative production design and a level of opacity far beyond most mainstream releases [are] often confused with profundity."
As a big fan, I look forward to The Yiddish Policemen's Union, their next project based on the acclaimed novel by Michael Chabon, who will hopefully be of some assistance in honing the Coen brothers' dull if unhairy Jewish ear.
The writer is a New York-based author and research analyst. He is writing a graphic novel about life and loss on the Lower East Side.