Joel and Ethan Coen aren’t generally accused of making personal films, and they have never dealt explicitly with their Jewish heritage. So A Serious Man, their remarkable new movie, is very much a landmark in the Coen canon. It’s set in 1967 in an amusingly flat and nondescript Midwestern city (very much, the Coens have claimed in interviews, like the Minnesota town in which they grew up), and it’s about a fractious, scrambling, and deeply anxious Jewish family, in particular the perpetually rattled physics-professor father, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose life is coming apart at the cheaply tailored seams. He’s a bespectacled, clean-cut Tevye with the shpilkes spilling out of him, only in this case there’s a faulty TV antenna instead of a fiddler on the roof.
Working with affectionate mockery, the Coens take the cinder-block-synagogue banality of American Jewish life in 1967 and make it look as archly exotic as the loopy Scandinavian-American winterscape of Fargo. The grotty tract homes dotted with tchotchkes, the loafing uncle (Richard Kind) who’s filling a notebook with a brilliant/crazy physics manifesto, the 12-year-old son (Aaron Wolff) who listens to Jefferson Airplane — a magic pipeline to the outside world — on his transistor radio in Hebrew school: It’s all ? presented like sociological science fiction. Yet there’s a grand joke at the heart of A Serious Man. It’s that the Jews of the postwar era believed they’d achieved assimilation into the American mainstream, but in their habits and talk, in their unwieldy last names (which the Coens use as wicked punchlines), and in their compulsion to see consumerist America as a place that didn’t make sense, they were assimilated everywhere but in their own heads.
Larry’s life is a series of catastrophes. ? His wife (Sari Lennick) plans to leave him for a sleazy widower (Fred Melamed); his son, on the eve of his bar mitzvah, is interested only in F Troop; and Larry’s upcoming tenure hearing looks like a disaster. The driving question of A Serious Man is this: Are the problems that define Larry somehow karmic creations of his inability to deal with them? He’s trying to be a mensch, but all the people around him seem happier by reducing their Jewish heritage to a kind of cultural version of obsessive-compulsive disorder. A Serious Man isn’t perfect — I’m still grappling with the powerfully offbeat ending — but it’s cathartic to see the Coens finally show you a bit of who they are, or at least where they came from. A?