A Serious Man: Polish Mushroom and Barley Soup

Year Released: 2009
Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Larry Gopnik, Richard Kind, Sari Lennick,
(R, 105 min.)

"Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." Rabbi Rashi

If you are predisposed to deadpan snark, then you will probably enjoy this latest Coen Brothers effort. The more lofty your intellectual pretensions, the better you will admire the condescending nihilism masquerading as dark comedy.

Not that there aren’t a few laughs in this tale of a modern Job in the form of physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose personal and professional life takes a downward slide from numb complacency to existential anguish.

Probably the funniest visual is Professor Gopnik’s lecture on the uncertainty theory – the close-up of him completing his mathematical proof in a final chalkboard epiphany of scrawled symbols that pans to the larger picture, an impossibly large 20 by 20 backdrop of the whole equation. Which makes one wonder which is more laughably absurd, the thought of his chalking in all those numbers wired up like Mary Martin’s Peter Pan, or the very idea that one can actually prove uncertainty?

Soon the carefully wrought numbers come falling down on Professor Gopnik in all their uncertain glee, turning his well-ordered suburban life upside down. A failing student pleads to have his grade changed, backing up his case with a serious wad of cash coyly left behind. His friend on the tenure committee is vaguely optimistic, but feels obligated to tell Larry about the unsettling anonymous letters they have been receiving.

The professor has cold comfort on the home front as well with a family as self-serving as they are obnoxious. His son drifts through the final weeks of Hebrew school in a pot-induced haze of Jefferson Airplane on his transistor radio, while his daughter lifts cash from his wallet to save for a nose job. His schlemiel brother Arthur spends most of the time in the bathroom draining his pus-filled cyst when he isn’t postulating a scribbled theory that explains the universe and somehow helps him to win at cards.

Then there’s his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), who tells him she wants a divorce with the same self-righteous smugness one would expect had she been elected head of the local PTA. With all the faux enthusiasm of the Publishers’ Clearing House Sweepstakes brigade, the man she has chosen (Fred Melamed) greets Larry with smarmy hugs, a bottle of wine, and a plan to move him into a seedy hotel 

Unlike Job, Larry doesn’t rebel against his fate, but he does try to understand it. Unfortunately, all three rabbis that he consults, or tries to, are equally ineffective. The first, a junior rabbi, talks nonsense about finding meaning in the parking lot, the second, sips his tea while reciting an absurd tale about a dentist finding Jewish script on the teeth of a patient. The third, the oldest and wisest, refuses even to see him.

While not as outrageous an indictment of the religious community as that Hollywood usually doles out to Christian figures, this is perhaps all the more scathing. Yes, the Christian preachers and/or priests are often portrayed are mentally unbalanced hypocrites at best, but these comfortably apathetic rabbis are especially loathsome in their complacent dithering. Which makes critic Victoria Alexander label the Coen Brothers self hating Jews. “Why is every character ugly and repulsive except the naked shiksa next door?”

A handful of other critics also take umbrage at the condescending tone that permeates the film. Elizabeth Weitzman notes that the “…character are nearly suffocated under the weight of so much disdain,” while Louis Proyect labels it a “mixture of nihilism and postmodern smirking.” Perhaps a viewer comment said it best: “I had a free movie ticket and still wanted my money back.”

Yet, most of the critics fall over themselves congratulating the Coen Brothers for their “art and erudition,” calling the film “impeccably staged,” “a masterpiece”, carrying the “weight of substance.”

A few try to make sense of the prologue, an extremely ambiguous parable of the (un)welcome guest. Is the man who shows up at the door an old friend, or as the wife suspects, a “Dybbuk.” a Jewish demon who has taken over his body? She stabs him and he does not bleed, seeming to confirm her suspicion, but then a slow red stain begins to circle the instrument she has plunged into his chest, and he stumbles into the cold, saying he knows when he is not wanted.

The fact that this seems to have no relationship to the rest of the film or that one has to go to such extremes to justify it, speaks to an intellectual laziness from the coddled Coen Brothers, who assume, correctly I regret to say, that this muddle will be as easily accepted as the rest of the film, ultimately a self indulgent therapy session, “a workshop for the Coens to exorcise their personal demons, dragging us along in the process.”

(For a more satisfying depiction of Jewish existential anguish see Two Lovers.)

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

The film opens with a Yiddish prologue set in 1800s Poland. It is a cold and snowy night and the husband has returned after dark to his humble cottage. He is late because he has broken the wheel of his cart, but luckily, an old friend has helped him, and the husband has asked the friend stop by for some soup to thank him.

Yet the wife is sure that the “friend” has been dead some three years, and she suspects they are about to visited by a “Dybbuk,” a Jewish demon who has taken over his body.

Not taking any chances, she offers him a knife in the chest instead of the soup, and from this act, perhaps, our protagonist inherits his curse.

I have selected a delicious Polish Mushroom and Barely Soup, just the thing to warm you on our now cool evenings. Maybe it will ensure that only friendly ghosts visit you this coming Halloween

Polish Mushroom and Barley Soup 

  • 1 c. dried or fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • 10 c. beef stock
  • 2 c. water
  • 1 c. pearl barley
  • 1/4 c. butter
  • 2 lg. carrots, diced
  • 3 lg. potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1 stalk celery, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Bring the 2 cups water to boil in a medium saucepan. Add barley and simmer covered, about 15 minutes. Stir the butter into barley. Set aside. Heat beef stock in a large pot; add remaining ingredients. Bring to a simmer and add barley, stirring well. Cook, covered, until the barley is tender, about 1 hour. Salt and pepper to taste. 10 to 12 servings.

Recipe Source: Cooks.com