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Joel and Ethan Coen mine their childhood in 'A Serious Man'

Oct 28, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Joel and Ethan Coen occupy a unique place in American movies: They essentially make what they want, when they want and (usually) with whom they want. The brothers have made 13 movies since their noir-informed 1984 debut Blood Simple, none of which suffer from a lack of distinction. In a risk-free age rife with remakes and sequels and re-imaginings, the Coens are an exception to the homogenized rule.

Whether one is drawn to their unique visions is another question. The duo’s tendency to stunt emotional intimacy in favor of detached irony can come off as cold to many viewers. (Noted film critic/historian David Thomson called Raising Arizona “close to unwatchable” and The Big Lebowski “too cute by half, like a film watching itself, more intent on being droll than life.”) Worse — at least to those with little patience for their deadpan hijinks — the Coens’ chilly indifference can often overshadow their obvious gifts as visual stylists.

For my money, only Miller’s Crossing and No Country for Old Men offer genuine emotional resonance. That’s not to say I don’t get a kick out of the existential shenanigans found in Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn’t There. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be upset if The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother, Where Art Thou, Intolerable Cruelty, Ladykillers or Burn After Reading failed to exist.

All of which makes the Coens’ latest, A Serious Man, such a surprise — it’s their most overtly personal film to date.

It’s 1967 in suburban Minneapolis, where Larry Gopnik (a stellar Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor with a wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), and two children, 13-year-old Danny (Aaron Wolff) and 17-year-old Sarah (Jessica McManus).

The film opens with the Rashi quote, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” On cue, it’s not long before an avalanche of bad fortune turns Larry’s world upside down: His wife leaves him for a pompous neighborhood acquaintance (played with deadpan hilarity by Fred Melamed); various workplace issues threaten his pending tenure; his son smokes pot while listening to Jefferson Airplane; his daughter wants a nose job; and his live-in, socially inept older brother (Richard Kind) runs afoul of the law — all of which (and more) leads Larry to question his faith and seek advice from three different rabbis.

A Serious Man feels like a departure for the Coens — a personal film that’s not only set in the brothers’ hometown but is also informed by their own experiences growing up as Jewish kids with professor parents. Of course, this being the Coens, the “serious” material is presented in a surreal and subtly amusing way that will no doubt leave many asking, like the insufferably passive Larry Gopnik, for deeper insight.

I caught up with the brothers at the Toronto International Film Festival, where A Serious Man debuted in early September. Joel, 54, and Ethan, 52, were seated next to each other during a roundtable interview in a plush downtown Toronto hotel.

Ethan, the brother typically less apt to appease interviewers’ questions with illuminating answers, was actually just as chatty as Joel.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was inspired by experiences from a life,” Ethan said about the story’s connection to their childhood in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, Minn. “It’s all kind of a made up story. It was inspired by where we grew up in terms of setting: It takes place in a Midwestern Jewish community in 1967, and there was a lot of pleasure in that for us in re-creating the period. But the story itself, what happens to the characters, that’s all fiction.”

While most auteur filmmakers tackle autobiographical subject matter early in their careers, Joel said the brothers needed more distance before delving into their own childhood milieu, which might partially explain why they have favored screwball genre movies over the years. Then again, if the tragicomic antics of A Serious Man are any indication, they probably weren’t anxious to revisit their youth.

“That fact that this movie is getting made now, in a general sense, as opposed to when we were in our twenties or thirties, probably just has to do with the fact that things having to do with your childhood, at least in our case, seem to get more interesting the older we get, the further we get away from them,” Joel said. “A certain amount of distance also imbues those events with ... I wouldn’t even call it more perspective; they actually become more exotic by virtue of how they sort of recede into a period that you’re not living in at the moment.”

The film’s investigation of the Jewish faith, which is equal parts funny and horrendous, plays a central role. But don’t think it’s based on the Coens’ own relationship to their boyhood religion.

“I don’t think the faith part of it is personal,” Ethan said. “It’s part of the story, it’s important to the characters — it’s a recourse to deal with (Larry’s) problems. But that’s all, again, part of a story involving …” “Fictional characters in a specific religious community,” Joel said, finishing Ethan’s sentence. “So part of what was interesting to us was the religious community aspect of it, because it was a big part of our upbringing. The story sort of came out of that context.”

Some have labeled A Serious Man’s depiction of Judaism as anti-Semitic, a charge Joel doesn’t understand: “It seems like a strange accusation to level at the movie, so I would want to know more specifically (what people find anti-Semitic).

“The ‘latent anti-Semitism as Jewish paranoia’ theme is very much in the movie,” Joel said. “It’s something we grew up with a sense of because we were immersed in the community. We grew up in St. Louis Park after the migration of a lot of Jews from Minneapolis proper to the suburbs happened. And because the Jewish community in St. Louis Park was not the dominant ethnicity — it was a big community — we didn’t grow up with any anti-Semitism. We were sort of in the middle of a large Jewish community that felt very natural and unthreatening to us.”

“Yes, so we didn’t feel alienated in that respect, Ethan said, jumping in. “But all Jews are fascinated by anti-Semitism, whether they’re victims of it or not. It’s an interesting thing.”

And, like most Coen brothers movies, A Serious Man’s final sequence is a perplexing head-scratcher, one that does little to tie up Larry Gopnik’s search for meaning.

“Our endings feel right to us,” Joel said. “An ending has to feel right emotionally and aesthetically in a really non-intellectual way.”