(RNS) “A Serious Man” isn’t a mystery — except in the most existential sense. Instead, it’s the small-scale story of a quiet physics professor in 1967 suburban Minnesota, with a wife and two kids and a tenure review around the bend.
But then his life starts to fall apart. His wife wants to leave him, his kids turn into screaming brats, his position at the university looks doubtful. And this man, who’s always relied on facts, finds no reason in any of it. And so he turns to religion — and still finds no reason in any of it.
It’s like the Book of Job, but without the happy ending.
“He does get an awful lot of abuse, but it’s a bit different from the Book of Job,” corrects Ethan Coen, 52, who co-wrote, -directed and -produced the film with his older brother Joel. “Job is about a servant of God whose faith is being tested. But this is a guy who’s never thought about those things. He doesn’t have that kind of spiritual dimension. He’s just sort of living his life.”
“Which appealed to us, too,” adds Joel. “That whole idea of scientific reason as opposed to religious experience. Also that both sides attempt to explain the universe using numbers — that’s why we brought in the Kabbalah a little bit. That became an interesting thing to riff on.”
What was also interesting to the Coens was — after the sweep of the Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men,” and star-studded slapstick of “Burn After Reading” — getting back to something smaller. And something more personal than anything they’ve ever done.
Because both Coens also grew up in suburban Minnesota. Their college professor dad taught economics (not physics, admittedly, but still numbers). Joel was a bar mitzvah boy in `67 — just as the son in the film is. Even some of the characters share names with people from their childhood.
But, the filmmakers insist, that’s all they share.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was inspired by experiences from our lives,” cautions Ethan. “It was inspired by where and when we grew up, in a Midwestern Jewish community in the late `60s. There was a lot of pleasure in that for us, in re-creating that, but beyond that, what happens to the characters is fiction. Faith is important to the characters, but again that’s part of a made-up story involving fictional characters.”
The Coens grew up in St. Louis Park, an upscale suburb with white-collar dads, stay-at-home moms and “a lot of pot-smoking among very young teenagers,” Joel says. The brothers shot Super-8 movies in their backyard, saw films at a local arthouse and plotted their escape.
Philosophically, perhaps, the Coens are closest to the existentialists, their own madcap farces and pulp-fiction nightmares functioning like a pop-culture Camus. Yes, the universe is a painful and sometimes hopeless place. But that doesn’t absolve you from your duty to push forward. To struggle is pointless? The struggle is the point.
Still, the Coens are often tagged by unsympathetic critics as being cynics (a label they refuse). And their endings — or lack of endings — leave some audiences bewildered.
“The endings feel right to us,” says Joel. “And that’s a `feel’ thing, as much as anything in movies — maybe more so. An ending just has to feel right, emotionally and aesthetically, in a really non-intellectual way. That’s what we’re always looking for, and we know it when we find it.”
And the Coens have always been supremely adaptable, making dark mysteries, romantic comedies and literary adaptations, in between managing personal lives (Ethan is married to film editor Tricia Cooke; Joel is married to “Fargo” star Frances McDormand).
There have already been complaints among some Jewish critics that “A Serious Man” — with its depictions of nebbishy husbands, shrewish wives and clueless rabbis — is, in some ways, anti-Semitic.
It’s the same “self-loathing” charge lodged against plenty of Jewish artists, from Philip Roth and Woody Allen on down — and the Coens are wearily prepared for it.
“But I don’t know,” says Ethan. “I don’t think (the criticism’s) necessarily a Jewish thing. Anytime you put out a movie — even in our own specialized, arty little niche — and there’s any ethnicity referred to specifically, there’s going to be somebody, some person, who’s going to take it as a personal insult. They can never see it as a character. It’s always, always, all about them.”
“Yeah,” adds Joel. “But at the end of the day, we’ll probably get fewer offended letters over this than we did from Minnesotans over `Fargo.’ They really hated that movie.”
(Stephen Whitty writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)