Larry Gopnik stands tall atop his roof. Wearing slacks hiked up around the waist, a tucked in beige plaid shirt and thick glasses, he surveys his Minnesota suburb like a nebbish gargoyle – the endless lines of lopsided lawns and fences encircling cookie-cutter houses. To his right, he observes his belligerent, xenophobic neighbors unloading a dead deer from their station wagon, and to his left lays a voluptuous housewife sunbathing in the nude.
Gopnik is the middling protagonist of the Coen brothers’ 14th feature film, “A Serious Man.” The film, opening on Oct. 2 just days after Yom Kippur, travels back to the brothers’ hometown milieu of 1967 suburban Minnesota. It’s a Job-like parable that was inspired by Joel and Ethan Coen’s memories of their childhood in St. Louis Park, a heavily Jewish enclave that borders southern Minneapolis.
“The community itself was one that was bred fairly cohesively,” said Joel. “You felt like the Jewish community was part of what was bounding your experience.”
At the heart of the story is the aforementioned Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish academic undergoing a spiritual and existential crisis. His Orthodox Jewish wife, Judith, is leaving him for a colleague; his brother, Arthur, lives on his couch; his son, Danny, steals money to smoke marijuana in the bathroom stalls of Hebrew school; and his daughter, Sarah, desperately wants a nose job. Out of desperation, Gopnik, a largely unobservant Jew, seeks spiritual guidance from three rabbis to become a person of substance – a serious man.
Following the critical and commercial disappointment of 2004’s “The Ladykillers,” the Coen brothers took some time off to think. Out of this brainstorming session came the concepts for future films: “No Country For Old Men,” “Burn After Reading,” and “A Serious Man.”
“We were thinking about short films years ago, and there was a particular rabbi in our town who used to meet the bar mitzvah kids after the bar mitzvah,” says Joel Cohen. “He was a sort of Sphinx-like, Wizard of Oz-type character, and we thought, ‘Well that might make an interesting short movie.’ And somehow, that idea found it’s way into this story.”
Like the Danny, Joel, 54, and Ethan, 52, attended Hebrew School from second to seventh grade, five days a week. But they were anything but serious men. “When you’re a kid, all that religious instruction and language instruction is just a chore,” said Ethan. “You don’t want to go to Hebrew School. You don’t want to go to shul on the weekends. It’s all more schooling.”
The film’s most uproarious scene concerns Danny’s bar mitzvah – experienced through Danny’s stoned eyes. While the Coens maintain they weren’t high during their own bar mitzvahs, it was nonetheless a memorable occasion.
“We read one or two Torah portions,” said Ethan. “As in the movie, we each got a kiddush cup for a bar mitzvah gift. Joel still has his. I don’t know where mine is.”
Joel chimes in, “The rabbi’s rap at the end was actually verbatim from our bar mitzvah. It was the same thing. Every Saturday, Rabbi Arnie Goodman would end with, ‘Till that wonderful day when you stand under your chuppah!'”
Nowadays, the brothers have distanced themselves from their Orthodox Jewish upbringing. “I don’t know if, as a religion per se, it’s that much of a live issue for either of us,” said Ethan.
And it hasn’t been for quite some time. In his senior thesis at Princeton University, Ethan called belief in the Almighty “the height of stupidity,” according to Cathleen Falsani’s tome “The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers.” And Joel is married to the actress Frances McDormand, the daughter of a Disciples of Christ Minister, and even jokes, “We’ve raised our son, Pedro, as a Pagan.”
Still, depictions of Jews have long permeated the Coen brothers’ oeuvre, and these subjects are often prone to caricature – from the title character, a neurotic Jewish writer, in 1991’s “Barton Fink,” to the loud-mouthed, Shabbos-obsessed converted Jew Walter Sobchak in 1998’s “The Big Lebowski.” This has led some to accuse the Coens of perpetuating longstanding ethnic stereotypes. “Occasionally people would ask, ‘You’re not making fun of the Jews, are you?’” said Ethan. “We are not, but some will take anything that isn’t flattering as an indication that we think the whole community or ethnicity is flawed.”
The only deities, it seems, in the world of “A Serious Man,” are the Coen brothers, who torment their feeble protagonist with a never-ending string of calamities – a theory alluded to by the film’s star, Michael Stuhlbarg: “It’s not quite certain if it’s God or the Coen’s hand that is responsible for what happens.”
In one nightmare scenario, Larry Gopnik stands in front of a gigantic blackboard, filled from top to bottom with an illustration of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. He stares blankly at his students in the grand lecture hall. Moments later, his head is repeatedly smashed into that very blackboard by his wife’s illicit lover. The Coen brothers’ films, like life itself, offer many puzzling questions with very little didacticism.
“We have this character who’s beset by all these problems and he goes to his rabbis for relief,” said Ethan. “No doubt there are people who would tell a story about a guy who goes to his religious leaders for relief and gets enlightened. And that’s fine. But God, we would never make that movie!”
“Geez!” exclaimed Joel. “We were never interested in provoking them intellectually!”