“How is it possible to find the meaning in a finite world, given my waist and shirt size?” – Woody Allen
Scorsese had Mean Streets, Truffaut had The 400 Blows, Fellini – Amacord, and Woody Allen – Radio Days. Countless directors have paid homage to their childhoods as the Coen Brothers join the ranks keeping their quintessential absurdity and profundity but still resulting in probably their most sublime movie yet, A Serious Man. As it never presents itself as a personal nostalgic coming of age movie one can’t help that the world the Coen Brother’s create was not concocted out of their idiosyncratic imaginations but obviously from their own repressed childhood environment. Granted, Fargo was set in their beloved Minnesota and based on a “true story,” I doubt Joel or Ethan ever used a woodchipper or American Indian car mechanics like Shep Proudfoot and instead were more likely come across The Three Wise Rabbi’s.
After several decades of the Coens delving into every genre, what they have drawn from childhood they still retain enough fiction to keep it interesting. This too keeps that fiction by not having the protagonist as their alter egos. Instead we have Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is a physics professor struggling to raise his family in small town middle America, Minnesota within a Jewish insular community in 1967. But before we are introduced to this slice of Jewish-Americana the movie opens with a curious quote:
“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” – Rashi.
After Googling Rashi I found out this dude was far from a simpleton but a medieval French Rabbi who had a thing or two to say about the Talmud.
This then is followed by what is seemingly an old yiddish cautionary folk tale that alludes to the possibility of evil reincarnation or just plain superstition shot in 4:3 aspect ratio for good measure until we go widescreen funneling out from 13 year old Danny Gopnik’s ear via a transistor radio. Soon to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah, this pot smoking, Jefferson Airplane loving boy, who steals money from his Dad’s wallet to feed his habits, is unquestionably and ironically the only reasonable person in the movie – for TV and weed are a lot more appealing than parking lots and waddling yentas hacking up last night’s matzoh ball soup.
(The Coens sure know how to dress a set to regress. Go F-Troop!)
As jewy as it may be ultimately it’s about most American dysfunctional families. I mean, every family has a a promiscuous Wife, a backstabbing best friend, a crazy freeloading Uncle that scribbles the meaning of the universe in a notebook or a Sister that is preoccupied with her face and hair.
But given the structure of the jewish community it is the Rabbi’s that hold the position of power and the ones that they flock to for guidance only to part ironically with more questions about teeth cavities and how to be a good boy and with the uncertainty that the only truth being that mortality and mother nature are inevitable.
(I should stick with Mentaculus.)