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Get ‘Serious’

The Coen Brothers

by Naomi Pfefferman

September 2, 2009 | 12:59 am

About a decade ago, Joel and Ethan Coen, the brilliant and iconoclastic filmmakers of “Fargo” and the Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men,” sat down with this reporter to answer questions about growing up Jewish in St. Louis Park, Minn., where they amused themselves during the bleak winters by making Super 8 films.

The Coen brothers are notorious for their ironic and glib responses to personal questions, but during that interview at a Los Angeles hotel they seemed to express genuine affection for their Orthodox maternal grandparents and remembered hearing the Yiddish language spoken by elders. They also spoke fondly of a sister who went off to become a physician in Israel.

Over the years, they have expressed their Jewish identification through a preponderance of unusual Jewish characters: the Clifford Odets-like playwright battling writer’s block in “Barton Fink,” for one, and Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), the crazed Vietnam veteran turned security expert who says he is “Shomer Shabbos” in “The Big Lebowski.”

But, eventually, the Coens said, they hoped to make a film that would directly hearken back to the Jewish community of their childhood, where they learned Hebrew at the Talmud Torah school in St. Louis Park in the late 1960s. It took the brothers nine more years to make that movie, “A Serious Man,” which they shot in 2008 after sweeping the Academy Awards with “No Country for Old Men,” and which will open Oct. 2 in limited release. The story takes place in a Midwestern suburb in 1967, the same year Joel Coen became a bar mitzvah, but expands beyond it to become a haunting meditation on the nature of human suffering, God and the universe — while combining the slapstick of “Raising Arizona” with the nihilism of “No Country for Old Men.”

The black comedy opens with a quote from the sage, Rashi, which looms large on a black screen: “Accept with simplicity everything that happens to you,” and then proceeds with an eerie fable set in a shtetl, performed entirely in Yiddish by actors fluent in the mamaloshen (mother tongue). In this prologue, a beaming man returns home on a snowy night and marvels to his wife about the good luck he experienced when his cart overturned on the Lublin road. He was stuck until a droshky (open cart) approached, and its driver, a Torah scholar (played by the Yiddish theater veteran Fyvush Finkel) who once studied under “the Zohar reb in Krakow,” helped him with the needed repairs, allowing him to resume his travels. The husband chatters on, oblivious to the frightened look on his wife’s face until she intones, “God has cursed us.”  Apparently this scholar died of typhus at a friend’s home three years earlier. “You talked to a dybbuk,” she says, whereupon an ominous knock sounds at the front door.

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The unsettling sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film, which revolves around Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor whose uneventful suburban life is shattered by an existential crisis. Two weeks before his son, Danny, a Talmud Torah student, is to become a bar mitzvah, Larry’s wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), announces she wants a divorce in order to marry a family friend, whom she regards as a more “serious” man than her husband — a person of substance, a pillar of the community. The stunned professor is soon banished to a seedy motel with his brother Arthur (Richard Kind), a volatile child-man who feverishly scribbles into a spiral notebook he calls his Mentaculus, a probability theory about how events unfold in the universe. Arthur also has a penchant for racking up expensive legal fees for Larry to pay.

Meanwhile, an unscrupulous student threatens Larry’s tenure. Danny, who hates his archaic Talmud Torah day school, prefers to get stoned, watch “F Troop” and listen to Jefferson Airplane. Larry’s daughter is preoccupied with her social life and saving cash to pay for a nose job. Larry seeks counsel from three rabbis — a Hebraic version of Dickens’ Christmas ghosts — but they offer neither wisdom nor comfort. Even when it appears Larry’s luck has finally turned, the elements seem to conspire to crush him — literally and metaphorically — as a tornado approaches.

Just as Minnesotans were initially offended by what they perceived as “Fargo’s” portrayal of locals as simpletons with exaggerated accents, some Jewish viewers may be taken aback by aspects of “A Serious Man,” which depicts a spiritually vapid Jewish community, inept rabbis, demanding wives, stoned bar mitzvah boys and Jews who condescendingly refer to non-Jews as “goys.”

The filmmakers preemptively address the issue in the movie’s production notes: “People can get a little uptight when you’re being specific with a subject matter,” Joel Coen said. “From our point of view, ‘A Serious Man’ is a very affectionate look at the community and is a movie that will show aspects of Judaism, which are not usually seen.”

“Where you grow up is part of your identity,” Ethan Coen said. “That doesn’t go away, even if you’ve been away for a long time.” The credits at the end of the film joke, “No Jews were harmed in the making of this movie.”

As they did with “Fargo,” the Coens cast Minnesotan actors - this time, Jewish ones — to portray minor characters and extras. For the leads, they conducted an extensive audition process, focusing on lesser-known Jewish actors rather than the celebrities (think George Clooney and Brad Pitt) who have starred in Coen movies like “Burn After Reading.”

Stuhlbarg was called in numerous times to read various roles before the Coens cast him as Larry. The 37-year-old Juilliard graduate — who became smitten with the theater while performing at a Long Beach, Calif. Jewish community center at 11 - is an esteemed veteran of the New York stage, having earned a 2005 Tony Award nomination for his turn as Billy Crudup’s creepy brother in the black comedy, “The Pillowman.”

Stuhlbarg had also portrayed the tormented lover in Tony Kushner’s “A Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds”; an Auschwitz sonderkommando (a Jewish prisoner who manned the crematoria) in the stage and film versions of Tim Blake Nelson’s “The Grey Zone,” and, along the way, has done readings with Joel Coen’s wife, Frances McDormand, who took her husband to see Stuhlbarg perform in David Mamet’s adaptation of the morality play “The Voysey Inheritance.”

Some time later, a script of “A Serious Man” landed on Stuhlbarg’s desk, which thrilled the actor. “I had seen every single one of the Coens’s movies,” he said. “I love their sense of humor, their visual sense, their eccentricity, and most of all, that you never know what’s going to happen next in their films.”

The same applied to his own casting: After an excruciatingly drawn out series of readings throughout 2007, he received a call from Joel Coen, who said, “I’ll put you out of your misery — you’re playing Larry.”

The Coens did not offer Stuhlbarg, or any of the other actors, much explanation about the prophetic elements of the story. “I love to talk things out, but I have a feeling they don’t,” Kind (Uncle Arthur) said. “And yet they’re very specific, very concerned and thoughtful about what they want. So it’s a contradiction.”

Stuhlbarg learned early on that the fictional Larry was very loosely based on the Coens’ father, a retired economics professor — and that the brothers had fun inventing ways to torture the character.

Stuhlbarg, who is also an artist, sketched himself as Larry, overwhelmed by consternation, in order to prepare for the role. “I also asked what kind of movies I could watch to get an idea of who my character might be, and Joel and Ethan suggested the 1967 film, ‘The Graduate,’” he said. “Perhaps something about the time period resonated with them, and Dustin Hoffman’s journey, in terms of feeling baffled by events thrown at him — there was a similar sense of being adrift.”

From the Coens, the actor also gleaned that Larry’s sense of spirituality is “quite dormant; he thinks more of mathematics as his religion. It is only as events torment him that he seeks spiritual guidance, hoping that it will bring him some piece of understanding, but he never quite gets what he is looking for. He’d like to think there is a reason for the things that are happening, but he doesn’t get any answers. All he can do is question. Yet he does go from a place of innocence to experience.”

The character certainly receives no help from his indifferent divorce lawyer (Adam Arkin), an assimilated Jew who proves to be “another cog in the wheel of the machinery that is slowly crushing Larry,” Arkin said.

The 53-year-old Arkin relates to the film’s exploration and frustration with aspects of Judaism; the son of actor Alan Arkin, he grew up in a secular home in Brooklyn, did not attend Hebrew school or become a bar mitzvah. And yet others make assumptions about his observance because he is known for portraying Jews in the popular culture: on TV’s “Chicago Hope,” for example, or in the plays of Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies. Margulies’ “Brooklyn Boy” and “Sight Unseen” examine the complexities of modern Jewish identity: “that no matter how much you want to reinvent yourself, your heritage and your history is going to be something you must integrate into whatever you become,” Arkin said. Perhaps the Coens may be processing some of these issues in “A Serious Man.”

“When I first read the script, I was struck by my sense that this is a very personal film for them, because of some of the vulnerabilities of the characters,” he said. “And there is something about the humor and the pain in the piece, which is in its way very Jewish.”

The humor in “A Serious Man” is often cringe worthy — such as the scenes in which Larry keeps getting baffled stares, even from rabbis, when he mentions his wife wants a “get” (Jewish divorce) — “a what?” is always the reply. Or when a real estate attorney (Michael Lerner) opens his mouth to reveal information that will help Larry win a land dispute with an anti-Semitic neighbor — only to suffer a lethal heart attack on the spot. “Michael [Lerner] must have died 50 times that day, while the Coens gave him so many options and shot different angles,” Stuhlbarg recalled.

Arkin, who has studied a variety of spiritual practices, some Jewish, some not, relates to the idea that “if you ultimately want religious wisdom, you’re going to have to do a certain kind of work on yourself and go inward. The idea of turning to anybody else for a solution or a gifting of experience, is setting yourself up to be disappointed, which I think is one of the resounding themes of the film.

“Larry says a number of times, almost as a plea for lenience, ‘But I haven’t done anything,’ as if that should absolve him from any pain,” Arkin continued. “But that is one of the reasons he is in as much pain as he is. You have to be active, present and aware of what is going on with the people around you, and to some extent he hasn’t been. And he pays a heavy price for that.”

“A Serious Man” opens in select theaters on Oct. 2.

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