The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

« Previous Post | The Big Picture Home | Next Post »

The Coen brothers' 'A Serious Man': More Jewish than matzo balls?

In the back pages of the press notes for the Coen brothers' "A Serious Man," where filmmakers always tell you how environmentally sensitive they've been in the course of making the movie, we learn that "No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture." OK, it's always good to hear that no one was physically harmed. But when it comes to being subjected to often merciless satire, there are a lot of Jews in this vaguely autobiographical account of the travails of a downtrodden, 1960s-era Jewish physics professor who takes it on the chin.


After seeing the picture myself last night, I'm betting that we won't see many rabbis using the movie as a starting point for any Yom Kippur sermons. Focus Features, which is opening the movie Oct. 2 in New York, L.A. and Minneapolis (the Coens' hometown), doesn't want any reviews of the film up yet. So consider what I have to say as an appreciation, not a critique. I can certainly reveal this much: The rabbis in "A Serious Man" take their lumps from the Coens, who seem to have saved up all the sarcastic remarks and deadpan dismissals they came up with as kids in Hebrew school and worked them into this movie's comic portrayal of empty-headed rabbinical authority.

I'm no expert on Judaism, but as someone who's pretty familiar with Jewish filmmaking, I'd have to say that the Coens are in a category all of their own. Over the past half-century, we've seen all sorts of Jewish sensibilities grafted into our movies and TV shows, from the Borscht Belt mugging of Mel Brooks to the sleek one-liners of Neil Simon to the frat-boy raunch of Adam Sandler and the cranky self-involvement of Larry David. But the Coens are originals. "A Serious Man" offers the occasional whiff of Woody Allen (from his "Deconstructing Harry" era) and a definite kinship with Philip Roth (the movie has a bored, slit-eyed Jewish sexpot housewife who could be right out of "Portnoy's Complaint").

But the Coens are sui generis Semites. They practice the comedy of Jewish alienation. Having grown up in 1960s suburban Minneapolis, the offspring of two college professors (hence the whiff of autobiography in "Serious Man"), their attitude toward alienation is entirely different than if they'd come of age in Westchester or Woodland Hills. Although the film is ostensibly about a beleaguered professor whose life is falling apart (his wife is leaving him; his son owes money to a pot dealer; his daughter wants a nose job;  his wonderfully weird, unemployable brother has set up camp on the living room couch), the character the Coens clearly identify with the most is the professor's 13-year-old son, who seems uncannily like a 13-year-old version of Joel Coen (who would have been roughly the same age in 1967,  the year in which the movie is set).

Bored and stoned most of the time, the kid bugs his dad to fix the TV antenna so he can watch "F Troop" and passes the time in Hebrew class listening to the Jefferson Airplane on the earpiece of his transistor radio, which sets up one of great jokes of the movie, which I won't give away, except to say that it somehow involves Grace Slick and an ancient, wonderfully inscrutable bearded rabbi. In "A Serious Man," we learn -- and I suppose you could call this one of the fundamental tenets of alienation -- that if you desperately look to wise men, in this case your local rabbis, for answers to the big questions in life, you're bound to be disappointed. It's a lesson the Beatles discovered at nearly the same time as this movie occurs, when they went to India to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who ended up being such a disappointment that he was roundly mocked in the White Album's song, "Sexy Sadie." 

According to the Coens, "A Serious Man" grew out of a story they wanted to tell about a bar mitzvah boy and a rabbi who was loosely based on a rabbi they knew as kids. As Ethan Coen described him: "This rabbi we knew was a sage, a Yoda. He said nothing, but he had a lot of charisma."

In other words, he was the Coen brothers' perfect idea of a spiritual leader. 


Comments () | Archives (5)

The comments to this entry are closed.

I can't wait to see the film, and am enthralled by stories of "spiritual" leaders being deposed from mirage, but take issue with this off-hand comment: "Maharishi Mahesh Yogi... ended up being such a disappointment [to the Beatles] that he was roundly mocked in the song, "Sexy Sadie." This view is derived from rumors promulgated by the sensationalist news media, but actually is a gross distortion of fact—which a little research would have revealed.

The old tale of the Beatles' disenchantment with Maharishi has been revisited recently by the mainstream press, which for decades spread the gossip that the Beatles' abrupt departure from Maharishi's ashram had to do with some alleged transgression by Maharishi. It did not.

Recent stories in your own newspaper—the L.A. Times—and in the New York Times and elsewhere have reassessed the Beatles' relationship with Maharishi, looking more at the facts than the rumors that swept the media in the 1960s. The Beatles themselves all discounted the accusations that John Lennon made against Maharishi—and Paul, George and Ringo all made public statements that they never believed the rumors.

John himself phoned Maharishi, back in the 80s, to apologize for "Sexy Sadie," the writing of which was a rash "error in judgment," John said. (See for documentation.)

The two surviving Beatles still practice the technique of meditation that Maharishi taught them (Transcendental Meditation), as did George till the end.

The strongest evidence for the Beatles' continued respect for Maharishi, and what really says it all, was demonstrated on April 4th this year when Paul and Ringo performed a benefit concert to support Transcendental Meditation in the schools, at Radio City Music Hall in New York. This was the first time that Paul and Ringo had played together since the memorial concert for George—and before that they hadn't played together in 20 years. Paul and Ringo were joined by an all-star cast of their TM meditating friends, including Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Ben Harper, Moby, Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, Sheryl Crow, Jim James and others. (See for more about the concert, and to watch a press conference with Paul and Ringo talking about their time in India and their experience with Maharishi and meditation.)

For your information, the Beatles were not disappointed by Maharishi at all. Paul and Ring continue to speak very highly of Maharishi and appeared in a benefit concert with David Lynch at the Radio City Hall, New York earlier in the year where they performed along with many high profile singers to raise funds to teach a million at risk children around the world Transcendental Meditation. If you really want to hear what the Beatles thought of Maharishi go to David Lynch tv website

Coen brothers are true genuises of cinema. It is now believed by a vast majority of cinema lovers that whatever they film is truly a masterpiece. As they have shown in the past that their films are a wacky mixture of art with fun,let us hope that "A serious man" will also be appreciated in the same manner as their previous works in the past.

Slendid movie from "the Bros." I changed my mind about converting to Judeism after I watched it. It's hard enough being an athiest Sicilian, but the poor Jewish folks have gotta lotta grief and guilt to deal with and I know I wouldn't be able hang. Jews have guilt...Sicilians have shame. Shame is easier and it's curable so I'll
stick with that! Seriously though...I grew up in North Hollywood of the 60's And it was about oh 80% Jewish the other 20% Irish and Italians. The movie took me back so completely to those wonderful awkward days as a kid( I'm the same age as Joel, by the way). I have a great affection for everything Jewish because that's all I knew as a kid and the families of my friends in those days were right out of the movie. I miss those wonderful kweching parents and kids so much because they truly had a strong family spirit and bond that is missing in that neighborhood now. Sad...
-Johnny Herrengo

"one of the fundamental tenets of alienation -- that if you desperately look to wise men, in this case your local rabbis, for answers to the big questions in life, you're bound to be disappointed."

You've missed the Coen Bros.' point: Despite the merciless sarcasm with which the rabbis are portrayed, the answers they give to the big questions are also TRUE! But poor Larry is too lost in his own suffering to be able to listen. Everything in the movie can be taken either seriously or as a big joke, even the title. Even the DVD cover is a serious? joke? -- Larry/Job is standing on the roof next to a big antenna, which he's trying to adjust so the signal will come in more clearly, but the signal that God is sending isn't getting through at all. Or maybe he's just standing on the roof to get a better look at his sultry neighbor sunbathing in the nude?

The biggest joke that the Coen Bros. are telling is that there's no way to tell what the truth really is. Like Werner Heisenberg and Ethan & Joel and maybe even God and certainly Grace Slick (all of them Jewish, by the way) -- are trying to tell us: "When all your truths have turned to lies, you'd better find somebody to love."


Recommended on Facebook


In Case You Missed It...

Stay Connected:

About the Bloggers



Get Alerts on Your Mobile Phone

Sign me up for the following lists: