| Filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen (“Burn After Reading,” “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men”) explore their Jewish roots in their most personal film to date. You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the subtle ethnic humor, but it wouldn’t hurt.
The movie opens with a Yiddish fable taking place in a 19th-century Polish shtetl that will turn off some viewers immediately. A peasant couple is visited by an evil spirit believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person. This short prologue has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. The screen goes dark.
A golden ring appears and takes us time traveling to the meaningless and insignificant existence in 1967 of the Gopnik family living in suburban Midwest tract house anonymity. The patriarch, Larry (Tony Award nominee Michael Stuhlbarg), is a college physics professor on the verge of attaining tenure. His son, Danny (Aaron Wolf), is preparing for his bar mitzvah. He is disciplined in Hebrew school for listening through his earpiece to the Jefferson Airplane song “Somebody to Love” playing on his transistor radio. He sticks a $20 bill in the radio’s cover which he owes a classmate bully for a bag of marijuana. The radio is confiscated and plays a key role in the movie.
Larry’s wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), wants both a ritual and civil divorce. She has started seeing widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Larry’s daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus), is stealing money from his wallet and saving it for a nose job. She demands more bathroom time. Larry’s inept and unemployable brother, Arthur (Richard Kind from “Mad About You” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), is living on the couch and constantly draining his cyst in the toilet.
Larry is bribed at school by a disgruntled South Korean student wanting a passing grade and threatened with a defamation lawsuit by the father. Larry also gets confrontational with his gentile neighbor over property lines.
Larry repeatedly utters, “I haven’t done anything.” He seeks spiritual advice from three rabbis as the problems pile up.
The Coen brothers take delight in sticking psychological pins in this voodoo doll-like character. Except for a beautiful neighbor (Amy Landecker) who sunbathes in the nude, the relatively unknown cast is purposely depicted as unattractive. The insular lifestyle of work, school and synagogue goes against the grain of many Jews who have assimilated in the modern world.
The movie is dark, depressing and surreal. Some may find it an offensive indictment of religion with more questions than answers about human existence and the meaning of life.
You would not give these invisible cellophane characters a second look if they passed you on the street. The nebbish nobody at the center doesn’t usually deserve more than a small supporting role in most movies. The Coen boys are hoping that the domestic themes presented are universal and not specific to any ethnic group.General audiences may find the material less accessible and feel like they are at the opening night of a Jewish film festival.
The chanting from the Torah and the Hebrew prayers make it seem like you’re sitting in a synagogue. None of the anecdotal ideas go into any depth and there is no resolution to this “slice of life” family drama. The visual gags are repetitive and the “F-bombs” are overused.
The movie gets points for its unique script. The period accoutrements from the clothing, hairstyles and interior designs are right on target. The movie even shows a vintage TV segment from “F-Troop.”
The most recognizable faces are Adam Arkin (“Chicago Hope”) and Michael Lerner (“Barton Fink”) playing lawyers. A better alternative to this unsettling, angst-ridden bleakness is to rent the first six seasons of the HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The Coen brothers could learn a lot from the brilliant wit of “Seinfeld” creator Larry David. He knows funny and takes a reverential pride in his Jewish heritage.
Now playing at AMC Studio 30, Glenwood Arts and the Tivoli in Westport.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"