The Coen Brothers’ new comedy, “A Serious Man,” could be the hit for which Focus Features has been looking. The little studio has never had a movie that grossed $100 million domestic. Focus got close to the Oscar for Best Picture with “Brokeback Mountain,” “The Pianist” and “Atonement,” but has never been able to close the deal.
The Coens’ “Burn After Reading” only did $70 million and it had Brad Pitt as its star, kind of. The much admired “Milk” made only $30 million. This year, “Away We Go” and ‘”Taking Woodstock” ‘ by name directors Sam Mendes and Ang Lee, respectively ‘ were relative disappointments financially.’The one true gem in the Focus crown, at least at the boxoffice, was the recent””Coraline.”
I do not know what’size audience awaits “A Serious Man.” The demographic would be’bar mitzvah boys circa 1967 to 1970. This means me, and about a half-dozen other people including the Coens. At my press’screening there were loads of laughs and many non-Jews in the audience loved it. At the premiere, three people later told’me they walked out. They were all Jewish. So here we’go.
Joel and Ethan Coen were raised in St. Louis Park,’Minn. In 25 years of filmmaking, from “Blood Simple” to “Burn After’Reading,” it felt to me like there may have been one Jewish character. I’d say it was Michael’Lerner as the studio head in’”The Hudsucker’Proxy.” Lerner returns in “A Serious Man” for one brief, hilarious scene.
Michael Stuhlbarg, a gifted actor, plays Larry Gopnik, a serious man who is a professor trying to raise a middle-class Jewish family in Minnesota in 1970. Stuhlbarg plays Larry as a passive’intellectual who is powerless as his life is falling apart. Of course, everyone around him is very kooky. His’grating wife, Judith (the almost too-good Sari Lennick), is having an open affair with recent widower Sy Abelman, played with slithering unctuousness by Fred Melamed. Larry and Judith’s son Danny’is about to be bar mitzvahed. Their’teenage daughter’is going through difficult years.
Richard Kind, who’s brilliant, plays Uncle Arthur, who lives with the family. It’s unclear who he’s related to, but Arthur is full of shtick and sight gags including a suction machine he’s using to relieve a cyst on his neck. Amy Landecker is the overly suntanned divorcee on the prowl to seduce Larry, channeling Mrs. Robinson; Adam Arkin is a worthless divorce lawyer. And so on.
There are several rabbis, of all things, and a lot of Yiddish. A lot. There’s also cancer, and an approaching tornado. What does it all mean? Is there a point, or is “A Serious Man” like a lot of jokes and stories told by characters in the movie: pointless.
Just in case we’re looking for too much meaning, the Coens add a epigraph to the beginning of the film from the 11th century Jewish scholar Rashi: “receive with simplicity what is being offered.” In other words: don’t read too much into’it.
The movie also has an opening scene, set in Poland perhaps circa 1899, that’s a complete non sequitur, spirited from Cynthia Ozick and Isaac Bashevis Singer. It seemed almost like a parody of the opening scene from “Inglourious Basterds.” Who knows?
And who does know, really? Most filmmakers eventually render their nostalgic childhood memoir. This is the Coens’. It might have helped to have a central plot, but maybe that wasn’t important. Getting Danny bar-mitzvahed seems to be the goal, while all around him chaos reigns. The only other central idea is that Larry is up for tenure, and a Korean student is trying to bribe him for a better grade.
For the Coens, “A Serious Man” is just another chapter in their long and productive history, with much to applaud and the usual amount of question marks. For Focus, however, its meaning could be much more, uh,’serious.’They need a hit. I hope this it.