A Serious Man, the Coen brothers exploration of their Jewish roots, opens in a snow covered shtetl in Eastern Europe. An unnamed man returns to his wife and tells her that an old acquaintance named Traitle Groshkover helped him get home through the blizzard. He’s invited him in for some soup. The wife is horrified. Traitle Groshkover has been dead for three years. The man her husband invited over for soup is a ghost, a dybbuk, and to invite a dybbuk inside their house would be to curse their family for many generations.
The screen goes dark. We hear music, Somebody to Love by the Jefferson Airplane. We find ourselves in Bloomington Minnesota in 1967. Lawrence Gopnik, a mathematics professor lives in a sterile, dreary middle-class suburban neighborhood with his wife, his teenage daughter, and his 13-year-old son. I was alive in the 1960s, but they were before my time. I came to consciousness in the 1970s. When I see a film like American Hustle, I immediately think of my childhood, but my images of the 1960s are largely second hand, film, documentary, and magazine retrospectives. I tend, therefore, to have a romanticized view of the whole decade. The 1960s, as portrayed in A Serious Man, are probably more true to life. Most Americans lived in sterile, dreary suburbs like the Coen brothers’ Bloomington. Woodstock was a far off romantic ideal.
In A Serious Man, the 1960s are there, but they hover around the margins. There are TV shows, a son who smokes too much marijuana, a sexy neighbor who talks about “the new freedoms,” a rabbi who solemnly intones Jefferson Airplane lyrics to a Bar Mitzvah boy, but not much real history. A serious man takes place in 1967, but it never mentions the Arab Israeli war or the recapture of Jerusalem. The 1960s become instead a symbol of the larger American culture that threatens, or perhaps promises to undermine the identity of Eastern European Jews in the United States.
If the Coen brothers have a less than romantic view of the 1960s, they have a completely jaded view of American Jews. Indeed, the sterile, dreary suburban block where Lawrence Gopnik owns a house is re imagined as a continuation of the shtetl in the United States. The shtetl in A Serious Man is not not the sentimentalized shtetl of Fiddler on the Roof, but a corrupt, narrow minded, mean spirited little ghetto that, in some ways, justifies the charges that the Coen brothers are self-hating Jews and anti-Semites. The Coen brothers have made cynical movies before, but their characters in A Serious Man have a physical and moral ugliness they don’t have in The Big Lebowski or Inside Llewyn Davis. Nobody in A Serious Man is as cute as Cary Mulligan or as cool as Jeff Bridges. Indeed, the Jews of Bloomington Indiana are even more physically unattractive than the Jews of the film’s prelude’s shtetl. Jews, the Coen brothers seem to be saying, got even worse when they came to the United States.
Nevertheless, the hero, Lawrence Gopnik, while he may not be particularly heroic, is a sympathetic character. His, unattractive, wife is sleeping with a family friend. His daughter steals money from his wallet. His son is a pothead. A Korean student is blackmailing him into giving a passing grade. Arthur, his unemployable brother is sleeping on the couch. For Lawrence Gopnik, the only thing that could possibly be worse than his dreary suburban existence is losing his dreary suburban existence. That happens when his wife announces she wants a divorce. He moves into a motel. Then we find out he he might just lose his job. The tenure committee is getting disturbing reports about his “moral turpitude,” although we’re never quite sure where they’re coming from. It’s not the Korean student. Arthur is being investigated by the police for gambling.
For Arthur, a mathematics professor and, one would assume a rationalist, science provides no explanations about why his life seems to be falling apart. Neither does religion. One rabbi after another proves more useless than the one before. The Jewish community in A Serious Man, the Coen brothers hint, is corrupt, morally bankrupt, like Lawrence on the verge of destruction. Does it matter? Arthur gets his house and family back after his rival is killed in a car crash. But keeping the woman he’s married to seems as bad as losing her. He finds out he’ll probably get tenure. His son aces his Bar Mitzvah, even though he’s stoned through the whole thing, but, since he’s had to pay a lawyer 3000 dollars to keep his brother out of jail, he gives into the temptation to keep the bribe money the Korean student offered him. Not only has he lost his moral integrity, he’s set himself up to lose his job sometimes in the future.
In the last scene of A Serious Man, a huge tornado approaches the city. Lawrence’s doctor calls. He won’t tell him what the problem is, but it sounds menacing. Earlier he had gotten a chest X-ray. Could it be cancer. As the tornado bears down on the local Hebrew school, and an elderly rabbi can’t quite seem to figure out how to get the children into a shelter, we sense the approaching apocalypse. But what is it? Is it destruction? Or is it simply assimilation?