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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Tuesday
Oct132009

« In Which The Coen Brothers Return As Serious Men »

A Goy Walks into a Dentist’s Office

by JACOB SUGARMAN

Since the 1984 release of their neo-Western, Blood Simple, the Coen brothers have made a career of ironic detachment and outright snark. Even their finest films are marked by an irksome air of superiority towards their characters, viewers and mankind in general. As David Denby observes in his New Yorker feature, “Killing Joke,” the Coens are “masters of chaos, but one still has the feeling that, out there on the road from nowhere to nowhere, they are rooting for it rather than against it. Their latest, A Serious Man, is hardly a Whitmanesque celebration of human potential, but it constitutes their funniest and most affecting offering since the stoner classic, The Big Lebowski.

The film centers on helpless schlemiel, Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor at an anonymous, mid-western university whose life has spiraled out of control. His wife is leaving him for Sy Abelman, an unctuous windbag that looks like a Hebrew yeti; his son, Danny, smokes too much pot and busts Larry’s chops when the TV reception of F-Troop is fuzzy; his daughter, like so many pubescent Jewesses, compulsively washes her hair and pleads for a nose job; and last but not least, his deadbeat brother spends his days lying around the house with a suction devise to aspirate a cyst on his neck. If life with the Jewish Adams family wasn’t miserable enough, Larry’s being blackmailed by a dimwitted student and his tenure application has been jeopardized by several anonymous letters that characterize him as a man of poor moral fiber. In short, he’s fercockt.

Like The Book of Job, A Serious Man follows its protagonist’s quest for wisdom from his friends and colleagues—or in the case of Larry, a cadre of nitwit rabbis. Each offers advice more mystifying than the last, the most memorable of which belongs to Rabbi Nachtner, played with aplomb by George Wyner. Nachtner spins a yarn that owes more to the fiction of Woody Allen than the Torah or the Old Testament.

The story goes something like this: a Jewish dentist named Sussman is giving a check-up to a man described only as “the Goy” when he discovers several Hebrew letters carved into the back of his lower teeth. Together, they spell out the phrase, “help me.” Is this a sign from Hashem that the dentist must offer his aid to this man, or perhaps all men in need? The discovery shakes Sussman to his core and he begins rifling through his patient records for further messages. After a few weeks of anxious hand-wringing, however, he abandons his pursuit for the day-to-day routine of dentistry and domestic life. So much for burning bushes.

What does this have to do with Larry’s tenure application and his impending divorce? Not a damn thing and therein lies the metaphysical weight of A Serious Man; life is a tale of Jewish dentists and goyish teeth, signifying nothing. No sooner does their protagonist’s luck start to change then the Coens, presiding over the narrative like their own vengeful Yahweh, hit the viewer over the head with a chair like The Ultimate Warrior in a WWF Battle Royale. Either we're alone in the universe, subject to the cruelties of the absurd, or we’re at the mercy of a sadistic God who will punish us despite our best efforts to pay our taxes, feed the goldfish and do our homework--to behave like serious men. Hashem, if he does exist, is the town bully chasing Danny down for a $20 debt. As the film’s final scene reveals, he always collects.

However grim a vision of the universe its filmmakers present, A Serious Man is levied by the pitch-perfect performances of its lead players and the Coens’ irreverent humor. Danny’s stoned-out torah reading easily vaults the Star Wars theme-party in Deconstructing Harry as the greatest bar-mitzvah sequence in film history.

These films are so arch and stylized that they can grow distracting when they feature movie stars like Brad Pitt or Catherine Zeta-Jones. With a cast of unknowns and semi-recognizable character actors, the viewer doesn’t have to peel through too many layers of disbelief. Most importantly, the film represents its directors' first venture into their personal history and religious ancestry. Raised on the Great Plains by Minnesotan academics, Joel and Ethan were little Gopniks once too, lighting up and fighting their sister for access to the bathroom. Coen Brothers’ characters always verge on caricature, but there’s an undercurrent of affection in their depiction of these chosen misfits that’s so often lacking in their other movies. A Serious Man cements the Coens’ place in the continuum of great Jewish auteurs and offers proof positive that even Hashem affords the occasional mitzvah.

Jacob Sugarman is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He last wrote in these pages about Michael Jackson.

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