“A Serious Man”

            The latest film by Joel and Ethan Coen feels like a self-indulgent, nostalgic waltz through a childhood that never was.  There are several dream sequences encased, and it ends kind of like a dream often does----random images flashing through the mind, but nothing really resolved.  And then the images dissipate, and disappear, and we’re left with sensations without linear content.
            See, there’s this good American Jewish family in the 1950’s.  Stultifying suburbia, Neanderthal “goy” next door, musclehead in a t-shirt always throwing a baseball with his boy (but they’re both continually flatfooted, as if they don’t really know what they’re doing, they’re just playing at it).  The husband, a bright, nerdy, well-meaning guy that everyone feels comfortable treating like dirt, is up for tenure as a professor of math.  He loves expounding the elegiac theories, but he’s kind of Father McKenzie in the Beatles song, writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear.  His red-headed son is studying for his Bar Mitzvah, good boy, except he’s also smoking marijuana on the side, and he now owes the fat kid down the street, who’s constantly ineffectually chasing him.  Big Sis is a screeching malcontent;  the only words out of her mouth are whiny complaints.  Mom wants a divorce;  she announces that she already has somebody else, but they didn’t “do” anything.  The so-called rival turns out to be this smarmy bald guy who likes to hug, and touch his hand, and ooze sincerity, condescendingly assuring him that they can all work through this like mature adults.  Then there’s Dad’s useless brother who mooches off them all by occupying the couch and the bathroom, but not a place at the table, and he’s not such a delight to be around, either.
            No wonder Dad dreams of helping his brother move to Canada .  No wonder Dad dreams of the bedding the lady next door whom he once spotted sunbathing in the altogether.  Naturally, she’s unhappy, also, which would be yet another way our Mr. Everyman could get in trouble without really enjoying himself.  Dad even tries seeing the Rabbi.  But wait, the “seasoned” Pastor is too busy----thinking----(or so his guard-at-the-castle-door secretary says), and the middle-aged one tells irrelevant stories (did you hear the one about the Goy dentist?) , and the young one, well, he talks about seeing the glory of “Ha Shem” in something even so mundane as a parking lot.  Well.  So much for pastoral guidance.   Red-headed son chants his way through his Bar Mitzvah half-stoned, but nobody seems to notice.  Dad deals with a belligerent foreign student who’s trying to bribe him into a better grade, then, when that doesn’t work, with his Dad who threatens a lawsuit.  What else could happen?
            We’re not sure we want to know.  What passes for irony feels more like just continual whining.  The Cohen brothers have always given us cultured absurdities, but there’s a fine line, sometimes, between a coherent farce and a rambling, profane joke without a punch line.  They’ve given us better.  And they will again.  But this one was not their best effort.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas