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November 6, 2009

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Film review by Lyn Payne Associate Editor To paraphrase Archibald MacLeish on poetry, a Coen Brothers film should not mean, but be. "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." The quote from the medieval sage Rashi is Ethan and Joel Coen's epigraph to their new film "A Serious Man'--but it serves just as well as an admonition to the audience about to see it. Critics have complained that it asks a lot of questions but never delivers an answer. To such as these, the Coens effectively say, "Welcome to our world." It's 1967, the year of the Summer of Love and the Six-Day War, and suburban America, and American Jew- ish life, are about to change forever. Larry Gopnik (Tony nominee Michael Stuhlbarg) is a Minnesota professor of physics, whom unmerciful disaster follows fast and fol- lows faster in a tale that is less a plot than a series of unfortunate events. Larry's wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for his nemesis, widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed in the role is the very dictionary definition of extreme unctuousness), and demands a get. Pot-smoking son Danny (Aaron Wolff, world- weary and adorable) has his transistor radio confiscated by his Hebrew teacher when it blares out Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" and tries to learn the Torah portion for his bar mitzvah while worr~ ing about the bully shaking him down for money, but he won't let Larry alone about the TV aerial that won't pick up "F-Troop." Daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) wants both a nose job and the bathroom, the latter being usually occupied by Larry's shiftless brother Arthur (the cherubic Richard Kind). Arthur drains his cyst, sleeps on their couch, and works on scribbling out the magnum opus he calls "The Mentaculus," containing "the proper wisdom of the universe." Also metaphorically or literally breathing down Larry's neck are the tenure committee, the writer of a spate of anonymous com- plaints against him, his law- yer (played with deadpan TV attorney-ness byAdamArkin) demanding $3,000 in billable hours, the deer-hunting goy next door with whom he has a property line dispute, the lusty Jewish woman he spies sunbathing as he struggles with the aerial on" the roof, Dick Dutton of the Colum- bia Record Club who keeps calling to get payment for Santana's "Abraxas" (which doesn't even come out until 1970), and the South Korean student who slips him an envelope of cash with the understanding that Larry should up his grade. As cash- strapped Larry wrestles with the angel of his ethics, Clive Park's father appears to tell him to "accept the mystery." Larry's wife and her lover order him out of his own house and he meekly moves into the Jolly Roger motel with his brother and watches Judith bleed his bank account as each night's sleep brings him a ~new variation on his personal nightmare. What's a hapless shlub to do but visit the rabbi? The First Rabbi, young Rabbi Scott, doesn't know what a Wilson Webb Aaron Wolff (I) stars as Danny Gopnik and Michael Stuhl- bary stars as Danny's father Larry Gopnik in writer~directors Joel and Ethan Coen's "A Serious Man," a Focus Features release playing at the Enzian in Maitland through Nov. 12. get is, but tells Larry to look Just. And God is constantly around at the wonders con- addressed as HaShem. rained inahumble parkinglot The film's prologue lands (one pictures Rabbi Scott in us straight in the shtetl as 40yearslionizedbynon-Jews Velvel and his wife struggle after he pens a few Chicken with what may or may not be Soup-ish bestsellers). The a dybbuk (the magnificent Second Rabbi, sipping tea Fyvush Finkei) and Velvers with the mien ofa Zen master, scream "We are ruined!" offers him a koan that builds morphs into Larry's MadMen- uptohilarityinthetaleofthe lite world. But Larry's world Jewish dentist and"The Goy's is a shtetl all the same, where Teeth." The Third Rabbi, everyone we meet--doctors, wise and elusive old Rabbi lawyers, tradesmen, vixens Marshak, is the one Larry and adulterers--is Jewish. must make every attempt to The goyim (no worries, that's see, for it is he... thewordthecharactersuseso If there's a movie made oftenitlosesitsoffensiveness) after the glory days of Yiddish are the walk-ons. cinema that has more Yid- And what have Jews been dishkeit in it, neitheryounor doing, since before their I will think of it. Here we've Anatevka days? Trying to got menorahs on the side- figure out the mysteries of board, Mogen David, Hebrew the universe, writing their lessons, gets, dybbuks, lamed Mentaculuses, wondering vavniks, AbbaEban, Masada, whether Scroedinger's Cat tsuris, the constant refrain is dead or alive, and won- of the great Sidor Belarsky dering what it takes to be a singing"Dem Milners Trern" mensch~a Serious Man. as we picture Jews hunted The Coens have written from pale to pale in Czarist and directed a film so per- Russia, and in the credits yet, sonal and so willfully, wilily a reference to The Last of the evasive they only could have done it after their string whether it sounds to us like of more popular successes. Grace Slick or Stevie Nicks or Cinematographer Roger Dea- LadyGaga, itdefinitely doesn't kins gives us a clear-lensed sound like Sidor Belarsky. view of the brown-yellows "A Serious Man" isn't the and olive drabs that barely Coens'masterpiece--serious cover the persistent sense of critics will offer up "Fargo" lurking anxiety. The cast is or "No Country for Old Men" pitch-perfect, but none ofthe for that--but neither is it characters are really likable, a brass tchotchke. You can although Stuhlbarg's Larry map its appeal in concen- turns his puppy-llike gaze so tric, ever-smaller circles: Art pleadingly on everyone who house moviegoers and Coen might help him in his search acolytes will take pleasure in for truth, we end up genu- pickingattheBergman-esque inely wanting him to find it. symbolism for decades, and Freudians will observe that decades from now there will once Larry literally embraces still be plenty of meat on that his Id in the shape of his carcass to pick at. Jews will brother, he regains the ability amaze themselves that any to take an active part in the film not made by a crew of world, though the standard Lubavitchers could be such Coen ending chops off our a neverending cornucopia of knowledge of whether Larry verbalandvisualYiddishisms. ever finds his truth. But in Jews from the Midwest, and Judaism, as Elie Wiesel has of a certain age, will vibrate said, isn't it more important to the local color like a finely to ask the right questions tuned roof aerial. And the than to find the answers? Coen brothers themselves, Joel Coen was 13 years theirownpeffectreaders, will, old in 1967, and you won't like Henri Matisse with the understand "A Serious Man" exquisite paper cuttings he unless you realize that it isn't made for himself at the end really Larry's story, it's his ofhiscareer, enjoy the secrets son Danny's. If you became they've told to each other. a bar or bat mitzvah in 1967 None of the moviegoers or later, it's your story, too. I talked to thought "A Seri- Larry's world is the world ous Man" will have a very of our fathers. The Six-Day wide audience. As I walked War gave Jews a new sense of away playing with its riddles themselves as proud defend- stuffed into its mysteries like ers of their own sovereign blintzes and folded up like ha- iand, butbrought unexpected mantaschen into its enigmas, dangers.TheSummerofLove I thought that might not be deliveredthe coup de grace to such a bad thing. the post-War Organization "ASeriousMan"(USA2009), Man, but spawned a gen- inEnglish, IrtddishandHebrew eration that never expected with English subtitles, written anything to makesense~ and directed byEthan It ends up being Danny to Joel Coen; is playing at least i whom Rabbi Marshak4inally through Nov. 12 at the Eruffan impartsthe crypticMessage of Theater, 1300 S. Orlando Ave. the Airplane. It's Danny, and in Maitland. For tickets and us, to whom the voice in the information, visituavw.enzian. whirlwind finally speaks, and org or call407-629-0054. :1 l i il SYDNEY, Australia 0TA)-- A Jewish comedian walks into a Palestinian sperm bank and arouses himself on camerawith the aid of Barack Obama's book "The Audacity of Hope." No, it's not a stunt from Sacha Baron Cohen's latest movie, but ascene from anewAustralianTV showinspiredbyaJew'sstruggle with intermarriage. John Safran's "Race Rela- tions," a controversial new eight- partseriesthatbeganairingtwo weeks ago, is about interrac'~ love "in the age of Oban~" The star of the show, Safran, 37, is an award-winning TV co- median and radio host who was born in Melbourne, Australia, brought up in a traditional Jew- ish household and educated at Yeshivah College, an Orthodox Lubavitch-run boys' school. His show, which has been denounced by the Australian Family Association as '~he low- est point in Australian television history," includes a scene in which he sniffs underwear he's stolen from Jewish and non- Jewish women in a "scientific" experiment to determine if he was more attracted to non- Jewish women. Safran says there is a serious side to his show about interrnar_ riage, especially since, statisti- cally, the chances of marrying Australian John Safran is nailed to a cross in Easter Sunday, April 10, 2009. Broadcasting Corporation the Philippines on someone from one's own ethnic background are slim. "Being Jewish, it's such a potent issue in the community and I can engagewith it,"he told JTA in an interview. Since 1997, when he was filmed streaking through Je- rusalem wearing only a scarf, Safran has produced some of the edgiest, raciest and most ir- reverent material ever screened on Australian TV. His trek to the Ivory Coast to have a voodoo spell cast on an ex-girlfriend and his attempt to join the Ku Klux Klan, amongother pranks, have elevated him to an iconoclastic satirist of Australian culture. Even before the first episode of Safran's new show aired on the Australian Broadcasting Corp., a furor had erupted over Safran's stunts. An editorial in The Australian newspaper slammed it as "contrived and pointless,"askingwhythepublic broadcaster had used taxpayer money for such a program. Jewish groups have remained silent thus far. Safran says the show is about a theme that's personal: When he had a non-Jewish girlfriend in college, Safran's parents pressured him to leave her and marry a Jewish woman. Jewish books on intermar- riage influenced the series, he says. Citing one book, Safran says a rabbi argues that "mar- riages will start off OK but then racismisjustinevitably going to get in the way." Safran tests the theory by going speed-dating disguised as a black man in Chicago, an idea inspired by the 1961book "Black IJke Me"by John Howard Griffin, who spent several weeks dis- guised incognito in Missi~'~pi.: "I wanted to see what it was like to experience racism," said Safran, adding that he was surprised the white racists he met were not embarrassed. "It was confusing and exhilarat- ing. I actually felt like even if I was caught I'd have been fine. It was definitely a very strange experience." The pasty-faced, bespectacled Safran evenvisits the grave ofhis mother, the daughter of Polish Bundists, armed with a spade and a kabbalah book seeking an answer to this question: "When it comes to love, should you stick with your tribe or escape your tribe?" He says the idea comes from a book on Jewish exorcisms in Safe& "If you wanted to know the answer to something you dig a hole next to the grave, lie in it, say kabbalah prayers and then the spirit comes inside of you," Safran said. John Safran in the Ivory spell cast on an e.r-girlfriend. Australian Broadcasting Corporation Coast, where he had a voodoo . He does just that on his show scream'mg.Sothewhole daywas but does not get the hoped-for a combination of fear of being answer. So he takes his odyssey crucified and fear of not being to Japan, Togo, Thailand, the crucified." Netherlands, Britain and the Afterward, he said, '~rhe pain Middle East. went away pretty quickly" In Israel, Safran covertly Safran says he drawsinspira- swapsthesemenofhisPalest'm- tion from the likes of satirists ian soundman and deposits it such as Baron Cohen and Mi- in an Israeli sperm bank while chael Moore. donating his own to a Palestin- "They push me further and ian fertility clinic in the West make sure I don't get slack," Bank to create a"Jewlestinian." Safran said. In the Philippines, Safran is "I just love ethnic com- nailed to a giant cross on Easter edy, Chris Rock and Larry Sunday. David," he adds. "I watch "Beforetheycrucifyyouthey Michael Moore, Willie Ther- just flagellate you and whip oux, Morgan Spurlock or you," Safran said. "Apparently Sacha Baron Cohen with I screamed too much and they my brain chugging at 100 were threatening not to crucify kilometers per hour working me because they said you can't out exactly how everything be on the crucifixwhen you are was done." i