Film Reviews

A SERIOUS MAN

By • Oct 22nd, 2009 •

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Every character is ugly and repulsive except the shiksa next door. What does this say about the Coen Brothers?

You will leave A SERIOUS MAN and think: “The Coen Brothers are self-hating Jews.” Why is every character ugly and repulsive except the naked shiksa next door?

I’m not only confused, I’m troubled.

The movie opens with a mini-horror tale about a Jewish peasant who is helped by an old man. He invites the man to his home. As soon as he tells his wife, she says they are now cursed. The man died a few years ago, so now a dybbuk (in Jewish folklore, a dybbuk is a malicious possessing spirit, believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person) is coming for soup! Confronting their guest, the wife promptly stabs the man (or dybbuk) in the chest.

Never go to 1967. It was ugly. In a Jewish neighborhood in the Midwest, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a college mathematics professor on the verge of tenure with a wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), who is having an “affair of the heart” with repulsive friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed); a son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), who is preparing for his bar mitzvah while stoned on pot; and a shrieking daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus), who is stealing money from him for a nose job.

As if this sadistic look at middle-class Jewish life has any philosophical context, Larry struggles to explain the famous thought experiment, the classic Schrödinger’s cat*, to his class. So, let’s be clear: Larry knows nothing.

Staying with the Stuhlbargs is Larry’s loser of a brother Arthur (Richard Kind), who has a repulsive disease he must tend to every few hours by extracting tons of pus from a cyst on his neck. He is staying on their couch. He has other anti-social, humiliating problems as well.

When Judith and Sy announce they are planning to get married in the faith, they insist Larry move to a nearby motel with Arthur. Larry goes to a series of rabbis who are clueless and offer absolutely no spiritual advice or comfort. Faced with mounting legal bills, Larry’s tenure is jeopardized by harassing letters to the college’s committee. A Korean exchange student aggressively refuses to accept his failing grade from Larry. He offers Larry a bribe.

I was appalled by the cruel, cartoon depiction of Jews!

So now I know where the Coen Brothers came up with Anton Chigurh’s hairdo. Their parents made them get that haircut.

Every person in Larry’s world – his Jewish community – is vile. Every stereotype is lovingly represented: Spitting Jews, Jews without teeth, obese Jewish women with male voices, ancient rabbis who do not care about their people – this shocking portrayal of Jewish people goes on and on.

The entire story is dressed with so much vulgarity that whatever “message” the Coen Brothers are saying is buried beneath a pile of anti-Semitic feces. The Coens even disrespect Jewish customs and religion. Danny goes to his bar mitzvah stoned. The rabbis have absolutely no interest in helping Larry save his marriage. There is no community support.

Larry lives in a vicious, loathsome, ugly world.

How in the world did both Coen brothers and their entire production staff and crew agree to this mean-spirited depiction of Jewish life and morality?

* Schrödinger’s Cat: A cat, along with a flask containing a poison, is placed in a sealed box shielded against environmentally induced quantum decoherence. If an internal Geiger counter detects radiation, the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when we look in the box, we see the cat either alive or dead, not a mixture of alive and dead.


Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email. You can contact Victoria directly at masauu@aol.com.

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18 Responses »

  1. Oh brother. You do realize the “shiksa” next door was Jewish, don’t you?

    The Coens are not exactly known for drawing sympathetic characters. Apparently besides being self-hating Jews and self-hating ex-Minnesotans, they must also hate Koreans and deer hunters – not to mention southerners, hippies, lawyers, bowlers, Arizonans, private detectives, mobsters, Texans, cops, barbers, nihilists, etc.

    Larry, on the other hand, is a sympathetic character. I’m pretty sure he’s Jewish.

  2. Change all the characters to Catholics – Irish, Italian or Greek. Or Native Americans. Or —— (fill in with a group of your choice) What difference would it make? The Coens could tell the same story. This is not anti-semitic. It is a carefully-paced portrait of a tragic character. And extremely funny.

  3. Your review assumes that these characters have these repulsive qualities *because* they are Jewish, instead of being human beings with repulsive qualities, who also happen to be Jewish.

    In fact, the only thing specifically Jewish about this film is the way it searches for meaning in God’s actions but does not find it.

    But spitting, not having any teeth, fat women with mens voices…these are human repulsions, not just Jewish ones.

    Your presupposition that it is the other way around may say more about your relationship to Jews than it does about the Coen Brothers’.

  4. Instead of focusing on specific and distinct character traits as a description of the movie, why not seek a conceptual and integrated understanding of the entire movie.

    Did you see Godfather as simply a tale of greedy, beautiful, ruthless Italians? Is there more to the story?

  5. Watch the movie again. The woman next door was Jewish, and while she was physically attractive, she was emotionally, psychologically and intellectually repulsive. I am not sure whether this confirms your theory about the Coens being self-hating Jews or your own stereotypes about Jewish women.You really missed the point of this film in 101 ways. I repeat, watch it again.

  6. think you may be mistaken- I believe the character, Mrs. Samsky, to be Jewiish- as evidenced with the mezzuzah outside her door. While it is possible she married a Jew and is a “shiksa”, this would be unlikely in this community in which most of the Jews intermarry, also given the 1960’s when it was still the thing to do.

  7. And btw, the “shiksa” is not repulsive, nor even is Sy or Larry’s wife. They are at least following the imperative “You better find somebody to love” which is about all you can do in this vale of tears before your time is up. Go do it your own self, sez I.

  8. “Never go to 1967. It was ugly.”

    This is the kind of trippily-impossible advice I’m growing to love in Victoria’s reviews.

    Given her shock at the ‘grotesquerie’ of the characters in this film, I’m going to guess that Ms. Alexander has never seen a Cohen Bros. movie before this one.

  9. I found the film extremely depressing. Larry has always assumed that if he did nothing wrong or malicious, was a dutiful husband, father, breadwinner, he would be rewarded with a passably good life. And in fact, one horrible thing after another happens to him, for which there is in fact no explanation or accounting. I identified with Larry and was crushed by the final phone call from his doctor, just as some things were looking up in his life. The concluding image of the tornado is an intimation of God’s presence “in the whirlwind”. If a Gentile had made this picture, he would definitely be accused of antiSemitism, but the Coen brothers, as Jews, are simply recreated the suburban Jewish milieu in which they grew up, and creating a compelling story out of elements they encountered there.
    I am not sure of the relation of the prologue to the succeeding film, except to depict the enchanted world of East European Jews, which at least provided them with explanations of the disasters that life deals us which today’s secular Jews look for in vain.
    Ms. Samsky is not a shiksa, as the conversation with Larry about the Gentile neighbor on the other side of Larry’s house establishes.

  10. I’m a gentile so, maybe I’d need to be Jewish to get what a “self hating Jew” is about.

    I’ve heard this term so often and it is truly disturbing, even creepy. What is the origin of this most ugly slur? I find it offensive. Do many Jewish people hate being Jewish? Weird.

    I saw the movie and never thought the Coen Brothers hate themselves or Jewish people. Sorry, YOU saw that and I doubt many others will. I certainly hope not. You don’t get their humor. I guess you think the Coens hate people from Texas and Arizona and Fargo too.

  11. Are there two very different versions of this movie out? Because the movie I saw wasn’t filled with ugly and repulsive characters-except maybe the goy /slash/ deer hunter who lived next door. The sexy siren next door was Jewish. Everyone else looked, well – more or less REAL. The kids were unremarkable, a bit self-absorbed like we all were at that age, and into no more than the ordinary teen mischief. The rabbis didn’t have much in the way insights into the mysteries of the universe, but they were for the most part warm and well-meaning. Even Larry’s brother had an endearing quality underneath all his troubles. And Larry was earnest and decent to a fault.

    “Jews without teeth”? Right. Obviously “somebody” has issues they need to deal with over Jews, but it’s not the Coen brothers.

  12. “What does this say about the Coen Brothers?” It says that this is a comedy, that’s what it says.

  13. I happen to think all the rabbis’ different advice was deeply profound if you think about it a bit. As a Jew, I maybe was just a tad bit insulted by the depiction of Jews in the movie…but I thought we were known for our ability to laugh at ourselves.

  14. “Staying with the Stuhlbargs is Larry’s loser of a brother Arthur”
    The actor playing Larry – his last name is Stuhlbarg. The family in the movie – their last name is Gopnik. Take your time with these reviews. People are actually reading them.
    It’s a shame you didn’t pick up on any of the wonders depicted in this film: the way a record album (in this case Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane) can mean different things to people, the absence of God in the face of mounting catastrophe, the ethical and moral decisions that we and those we love make, the way water – a lakeshore, for example can set you free. Arthur was most happy when in the water – and was most despondent when sitting in an empty swimming pool. A beautiful film with pathos and humor. And no easy answers. Kind of like life…

  15. #15, James — I’m glad you referred to the various rabbis’ advice as profound. The NY times did a review that was as perplexing to me as this Victoria A.’s review. The NY Times found confirmation and glad tidings for meaninglessness in the movie. They would. I didn’t.

    The rabbinical injunction at the beginning of the movie to ‘take your hardships simply’ was the moral platform I saw the film resting upon. I didn’t see Gopnik as Job (although I did see Arthur as Job – as was the rabbi stabbed in the shetle) I saw him as a disengaged schlemiel hoping against hope that a directive from God would replace the necessity of a conversation w/his wife and children. God does speak in mysterious ways and maybe if he’d of had the gumption to be a grown up husband and father, God would have spoken through his family. In this way, Gopnik’s predicament was exactly like my own. Good movie!

  16. Ms. Alexander, that was a mezuzah on the “shiksa’s” door. If you had any education at all re: Judaism, you would have spotted that mezuzah right away. By the way, I find shiksa to be quite an inappropriate word to use in a film review. Do you even know what it means?

    It’s rare that a film entrenched with such Jewish culture gets made, and I thought it was wonderful to see. The Coens are not self-hating Jews, and people who throw that term around are suspect to me.

  17. If you talk about physical qualities Larry, his wife and some other characters weren’t exactly “repulsive”. They were not the average Hollywood good-looking stars, that’s for sure, but I see men like Larry in the street every day and I’m spanish. Yeah, Larry is not the most handsome man in history but I wouldn’t call him “repulsive”.

    Most of the characters were flawed in their moral, except the main one, which is the point of the whole movie.

  18. I read some comments here, liked them all. And though I’m not jewish, enjoyed it for the dark side of how life can be. As I thought about the movie I couldn’t help but thnk of the bibilical character Job. And by comparing the two, viewed the movie with a different “perspective”…get it prespective ( advise from one of the rabbi ).

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