A Serious Review of a Superficial Movie

One week ago, on Wednesday, I canceled my evening adult Hebrew class to see, along with two of my students and spouses (mine included) a free preview of the Coen brothers' new film, A Serious Man, which hadn't yet opened.

It was set in the late 60s, supposedly about Jews in Minnesota. I was interested. I am always interested in movies with Jewish themes, especially those produced by non-Jews purporting to depict Orthodox or Chassidic Jewry, as in the movie "A Stranger Among Us." I usually sit there in the theatre with clenched fists, taut muscles and gritting my teeth, as I watch an embarrassing, often painful rendering of what the producers and/or directors think "Jewish Life" is really like. With all their production assistants and dialect and behavioral and cultural "coaches" and trainers, they rarely get it right.

In contrast of course, the Israeli film Ushpizin (in Hebrew, ha-Ushpizin) was outstanding. It was produced, directed and acted by Jews, and some of them--the protagonists themselves--were Orthodox Chassidic. It was the Real Thing, done with love and understanding, and it came out RIGHT.

I was hoping for something similar in A Serious Man (naive as I am), knowing that the Coen brothers (Coen=Cohen; I can't believe that they actually come from the tribe of Levi. What a waste of a heritage) were Jewish, had never made a movie about Jews per se, and were now finally coming to terms with their Jewishness.

The only words that come to mind now, are Oy Vey. No wonder they hadn't stopped to address their Jewishness until now. They should have just kept going and not stopped.

The movie dismayed me; it was so well crafted, yet it reminded me of caricatures of the Jews in the worst times of Antisemitism, in Nazi Germany. I couldn't figure it out: a well-done, awful movie about unrealistic buffoonery people.

What's this flick about? Here's an except from Uzi Silber's review in The Jewish World of Haaretz online.
Movie reviews have outlined Larry's cascading woes: a 'get' (Jewish divorce) demanded by a yentish wife interested in an older, fatter and balder Jew; a schlubby idiot savant brother who moves in only to move out with Larry into a seedy motel; the son, a bar mitzvah boy struggling mightily with his Torah portion while listening to Jefferson Airplane stoned; a homely daughter hankering for a nose job, a student's bribery attempt; tenure endangered due to anonymous rumor mongering, illness, storm clouds. Don't ask.
After writing about the initial reviewers who were all gushing all over themselves to praise this film, he shows a few chinks in the armor by mentioning some courageous dissenting voices:
The New Yorker's David Denby writes that "except for a few moments, it's hell to sit through," and concludes that "as a work of craftsmanship, the movie is fascinating; in every other way, it's insufferable." Amen.

Similarly, Michelle Orange of Movieline.com opines that the movie is "a slog, mostly; expertly crafted and yet difficult to watch." Amen sela.
The Coen brothers have it totally wrong and off-kilter; as Uzi Silber says, they throw secular attitudes and behaviors and Reform-type Jewish practices into a concocted brew together with Orthodox Jewish expressions and language-use which don't go together and come up with a stereotype-cartoon creation which doesn't exist in real life.

For a while, it threw me, too: it was so well-done, I was trying to figure out what was wrong with it. Silber had it down pat:
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."
Mea culpa.

Go see it. Just to see what Jews are NOT. (I shouldn't have canceled class.)


Batya said…
Interesting, and ironically, its ad was just broadcast on your radio!
I only see old movies I can buy for a few bucks. but I'll have to see the new Woodstock movie, since we have a relative acting in it.
Commenter Abbi said…
Why do you assume that this is exactly what Jews are not? It seems you are under the unfortunate impression that Jews are immune from run of the mill buffoonery, lust, depression,drug use, a penchant for petty thievery, adultery and all the other sins that non-Jewish adults and teenagers engage in. So, anyone who makes a movie showing Jews engaging in these things is making Nazi propaganda films? How naive.

This movie is a reflection of the Coen brothers' environment growing up in the Midwest in the 60's. It might not be a picture you enjoy looking at, but who are you to declare that this is what Jews were "NOT" in their Jewish community growing up? In my suburban Connecticut Orthoodxy community growing up in the 80's, there were plenty of drug and sex scandals to fill more than one movie.

Alternatively, why are the Coen brothers obligated to make a film that exactly reflects "real life"? (Whatever that is) Or why are they obligated to make a film that adheres to your definition of real Jewish life?

None of the Coen brothers' films have ever exactly reflected "real life", so I'm not sure why they are required to start now.
Lady-Light said…
Batya: Yes, I realized that as I was posting it; I would like to turn-off the automatic start feature of the Arutz 2 news, but I couldn't find it in the code...I'm sure there is something I don't understand...
I borrow movies from the Library. It's free; I don't think Israel has that yet...only "Blockbuster," which is too expensive for me!

Commentor Abbi: Please see my next post in response to your comment.

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