The Coen Brothers Get ‘Serious’

A Serious Man” — the fourteenth feature by the Coen Brothers — is about as black a comedy as the filmmakers have ever made. The movie centers on Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a nebbish physics professor who struggles to do right in the face of a bewildering (and frequently hilarious) array of adversities: his wife (Sari Lennick) announces that she’s leaving him for a smarmy widower; his upcoming tenure hearing promises to be ugly; his kids are stealing money out of his wallet; and ne’er-do-well brother (Richard Kind), who is plagued with a weeping cyst, has permanently sacked out on his couch.

As each of these crises pile on, Gopnik looks more and more like he’s about to blow a gasket. As the movie progresses, he seeks out the advice of three different rabbis whose council provides plenty of inane banalities but little solace. The truth is these supposed wise men, like everyone else, haven’t a clue why Gopnik is suffering such misfortunes. The Coens have long gotten mileage off of the absurdities of life, but they have never felt as pointed as they do here. At the film’s jarringly abrupt ending, movie-goers are more likely to wince than laugh.

When I talked to Joel and Ethan Coen last week, they were remarkably reluctant to talk about any kind of philosophy underlying “A Serious Man,” which I found odd considering the movie practically demands a post-viewing, caffeine-fueled conversation about the nature of God.

They were much more forthcoming about the process of making the movie. In particular they talked about why they opted not to cast big stars, how they happened to cast Tony-winning actor Michael Stuhlbarg in the lead (who gives a terrific performance), and about using Minnesota locals for key roles. They also talked briefly about their potential upcoming project, an adaptation of Michael Chabon’s book “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.”

Q: It seems to me that many of your films are morality plays and the drama of the movie stems from the greed and vanity of one or two characters, as in “Fargo” or “Burn After Reading.” This movie feels more like a modern day version of the Book of Job. Do you see this movie as a departure from your previous works or a continuation?

ETHAN COEN: We don’t really relate them, one to another. It’s got to succeed or not on its own, without reference to the other movies. Being a Job story — kind of, I guess. Terrible things happen to him, but it’s not like it’s about a character whose faith is being tested. It’s something else. It’s a character who’s kind of lost as opposed to trying to hang on to his faith. I kind of know what you mean, but it’s not totally accurate to characterize it as that.

Q: But faith is definitely a part of this movie. The main character visits a series of rabbis…

EC: I don’t know. It’s not faith per se; he’s just trying to get a handle on things through whatever. He’s a physics professor and thinks he has a handle on what the world is like. He’s even skeptical about seeing the rabbi initially. He’s looking for whatever kind of advice or help he can get, whether that’s common sense-based or faith-based or psychologically-based. He doesn’t really care.

JOEL COEN: Faith generally isn’t as big a thing for Jews as it is for some of our other religions.

Q: The last movie you did, “Burn After Reading” had some of the biggest stars in Hollywood in it, like Brad Pitt and George Cooney. Why did you go in the completely opposite direction for this movie?

EC: There were a couple of reasons. One, right off the bat, there aren’t any big names, marquee names like the ones you just mentioned that immediately suggest themselves as being suitable for playing Midwestern Jews. I can’t think who we would have approached who would have felt … authentic in the role. There may be one or two. But not many. But beyond that, even if there were some who would suggest themselves, [“A Serious Man”] seemed like the kind of story that positively didn’t want someone like that. Sometimes big stars are right for the kind of story you’re telling and the feeling you want for the audience. And sometimes it’s not, and this is just one of those situations where it seems absolutely not.

Q: What about this story made you feel like that?

EC: That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure if I know exactly how to put it. There is something about the extreme specificity of the setting that we were after here that a lot of the baggage with a movie star would work against. In fact, that’s why we tried to do as much local casting as possible — people who were actually of that community — because we wanted the movie to not be about Jews generically or even an American Jewish community, but, in particular, we wanted it to be about a Midwestern Jewish community. Which is a different thing. It has a different feeling and flavor to it. And it was that kind of extreme specificity that seemed, in our minds anyway, like the movie star thing would work against.

Q: What drew you to Michael Stuhlbarg for the lead? How did you cast him?

JC: He came in and read for the part. He’s a really brilliant actor. The funny thing about Michael is that he read for both the parts of Larry Gopnik, which he plays, and also for the part of Uncle Arthur that Richard Kind plays. This is before we met Richard. And Michael was so good in both parts that we were unsure which way to cast him. He’s just a really brilliant actor. The reason why we cast him in the lead role is that he’s a character actor who can also carry a whole movie — someone who you want to watch for a whole movie — and that’s not true of every great character actor.

Q: What was the process you went about casting for this movie?

EC: We made the movie in Minneapolis, which has a really good local acting community. Sari Lennick, who places Michael’s wife, lives in Minneapolis. Ari Hoffman, who plays the chairman of the department, and all the kids were cast locally. They were all really good. We cast as much as we could locally, which amounted to a huge part of the cast.

Q: And you did this because you wanted that specificity you were talking about…

EC: Yeah. Actors sometimes think they can act anything but there’s a difference between acting a specific region and being from there. So to the extent that we could avail ourselves of the real thing, we did. It’s just better and easier.

Q: Most of your movies are located in particular parts of America — “O Brother Where Art Thou” was based in the South, “Big Lebowski” in L.A. Is there any other part of the country where you want to make a movie?

EC: I can’t think of a specific one off hand. But yeah, you’re right. Here’s what I can say. It’s always important to be specific in the region you choose. It definitely helps us think of things like what the story should be or how to make it into a movie. It’s hard for us to think about stories independent of where they’re from.

JC: We’re working on a script now. I don’t know if we’ll make the movie, but we are adapting Michael Chabon’s counterfactual book “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.” It’s kind of funny in this context. It’s about Alaska, and yet not. I don’t know if you know the book but the conceit is that the Jews didn’t settle in Palestine in 1948. They were all moved to Alaska. And this is a detective story that takes place in Jewish Alaska. So it kind of dovetails with your question in a strange way. Alaska and yet not.

Q: Final question, how much of this movie is autobiographical?

EC: Not autobiographical in the sense that the events in the movie, the story in the movie, are made up. They didn’t happen to us. But it’s autobiographical in the sense that the context of the movie — the community, the people — they’re all very familiar to us from our childhood. So in that respect, we were after a recreation of something that was directly involved in our own experience. But the story is made up.

A Serious Man” opens in limited release on October 2nd.

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