George Clooney isn’t acting in A Serious Man, the latest film by the Coen brothers. But that’s probably because not even he could pull off a character named Larry Gopnik.
The movies of Joel and Eitan Coen are nothing if not enigmatic. In their best-known works, including Miller’s Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000), and the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men (2007), the brothers from Minneapolis have painted a darkly humorous world where character traits are exaggerated and life on the whole is violent, bizarre and unfathomable. Now, in a surprising tribute to their origins, they have focused their lens on Judaism. It promises to be a match made in heaven.
A Serious Man, which opened in US cinemas on Friday, is a movie about a character named Larry Gopnik – a one-size-fits-all Jewish-American name if ever there was one – who is not so much intimidated by God as he is confused, baffled, mystified. Who is God and what does he want? Larry doesn’t get the answers he’s searching for, but the audience is apparently taken on the sort of sophisticated and ironic journey that is the Coen brothers’ hallmark.
As A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times: “The vein of fatalistic, skeptical humor that runs through so many of their movies has frequently had a Jewish inflection, both cultural and metaphysical. Here, that inheritance, glancingly present in movies like Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski, is, so to speak, the whole megillah.”
The “whole megillah”, for those whose Yiddish is a bit rusty, can loosely be translated as the “whole shebang” – what we are led to believe by Scott is that A Serious Man is somehow the apotheosis of the laden-with-symbolism Coenesque worldview. If so, and even though Coen staples like John Turturro, George Clooney and Frances McDormand are absent from the acting credits, this could be a movie worth a lot more than “bapkes”.
Read more: The New York Times