If you’re looking to hit the movies after sundown Saturday, there is a really good, really Jewy option out there. It’s the Coen brothers’ latest film, “A Serious Man,” which Steve Rabey mentioned last month. Until sometime in the past few weeks, you also could have gotten a Jewish perspective on Nazis from “Inglourious Basterds,” though I wouldn’t have recommended taking the kids to that one. In fact, there have been a handful of good, Jewish-themed films in theaters in the past year: “Defiance” immediately comes to mind.
In a New York Times Magazine piece that I’ve been painfully remiss to write about, A.O. Scott — I think I need to drop the r, a and d that follow B — waxes eloquently about the Jewish history, real and revised, at the box office and the intellectual struggle of the Jewish soul:
When Adam Sandler, in Judd Apatow’s “Funny People,” claims to detect a telltale trace of “Judaism” in Seth Rogen’s character, everyone knows what he’s talking about. But then again, what exactly does he mean? Judaism in the sense of “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” or of “Eight Crazy Nights”? Or the deracinated “Happy Gilmore”? Or something else?
Meanwhile, a different, if related, set of associations animates “A Serious Man,” the latest movie by Joel and Ethan Coen. That film, which opened on the Friday after Yom Kippur (just in time for the Sukkot box office rush), travels back to suburban Minnesota in 1967 (after a prologue set in a Polish shtetl centuries before) to re-examine themes first laid out in that long, grim Jewish joke known as the Book of Job. The Coens’ protagonist, though not their title character, is Larry Gopnik, a devoted family man, a quiet neighbor and a hard-working professor whose life is turned upside down by a host of torments. The usual stuff: an unfaithful wife, a pothead son, an indifferent universe. If Mr. Sandler’s George Simmons is a recognizable type — the insecure, rebellious, egocentric and libidinous son — Larry Gopnik could be his self-effacing, dutiful brother.
Between “Funny People” and “A Serious Man” (the titles of which could easily be swapped, speaking of identity crises) came Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” which dominated the late-summer box office with the spectacle of Jews inflicting righteous payback on their oppressors. Going much further than, say, Edward Zwick’s “Defiance,” which derived its tale of tough Jews fighting back against the Nazis from the historical record, “Basterds” presented one of the most audacious examples of counterfactual history ever committed to film. Not only did Mr. Tarantino posit a band of ultraviolent Hebrew avengers smashing the skulls and slicing off the scalps of German soldiers; he also imagined an act of terroristic mass murder — a fire in a crowded theater — that did not so much avenge the Holocaust as undo it.
Was this good for the Jews?
I don’t know. Much as I enjoy the cathartic release of parallel history, I’m uncomfortable with this line: “now even the Holocaust has become a safe subject for pure entertainment.”
Good for the Jews, though, is open to debate. In fact, Scott indicates that it’s one of the many questions Jews have been wrestling with for centuries and as they continue making movie. That and how to lighten life with a little humor.
The real question is which, if any, feature film has painted a revealing portrait of Judaism and Jewish life. The answer is likely none. Pieces of the puzzles but not the hole picture.
Before I even started thinking about that, Scott had me with this little bit of indulgent self-reference:
FIFTEEN years ago, on my first visit to Jerusalem, my wife and I ran into an older gentleman of her acquaintance. I don’t remember if he was a rabbi or a scholar, but he was, in any case, a serious man, and as we chatted he asked me the usual, somewhat prying questions about my background, my interests, my impressions of Israel and so on. Discovering that I had an Anglo-Saxon surname, a non-Jewish father, no knowledge of Hebrew and some skepticism about both God and Zionism — but that I was nonetheless, according to the laws of Moses, a full-fledged member of the tribe — he gave me a tolerant smile. “Long live the Jewish identity crisis,” he said.
A man not quite after my own heart, but with whom I can identify nonetheless.
In part, this identity crisis is religious. But religion in the spiritual sense is largely absent from Scott’s world of Jewish movies. There is tradition; religion is something from which actors can’t escape.
But there is a lot of humor. And that’s a decidedly Jewish response to pain, persecution and modern prosperity. Scott relays this story through the tale of the serious man himself:
Objectively, and compared with just about any of his ancestors, Larry Gopnik inhabits an earthly paradise, free from persecution, discrimination and want, surrounded (with a few exceptions) by his own kind, and with nothing to worry about but his job, his family and his God. Needless to say, he’s miserable. But his unhappiness makes for a pretty good joke. Why wouldn’t it?
Especially when you’re dealing with the Coen brothers and their gospel. And their next film, or one of their next, will be even more Jewish then “A Serious Man.” Here’s hoping for an early wrap on “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.”