‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ opening December 6, pits the existential victim against the very possibility of Jewish success
By J. Hoberman for Tablet Magazine
There’s an art of contempt—Alfred Jarry opening Ubu Roi with a bellowed expletive, Marcel Duchamp exhibiting a urinal as art, Johnny Rotten snarling “God save the Queen,” or the young Bob Dylan hurling accusations at “Mr. Jones” over a wailing wall of sound. And then there’s the artful contempt perfected by filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen.
An undeniably talented two-man band of brothers, the Coens take pleasure less in confronting their audience or authority in general, than in bullying the characters they invent for their own amusement. Theirs is a comic theater of cruelty populated by a battered cast of action figures and a worldview that might have been formulated not from a Buick 6, à la Dylan but the Olympian heights of a bunk bed in suburbia.
Beginning with their neo-noir Blood Simple, the brothers have delighted in ridiculing their hapless creations—the yokels in Raising Arizona or O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the garrulous gargoyles of The Man Who Wasn’t There, the idiot schemers who come to grief in The Ladykillers or Burn After Reading, the doomed victims of No Country for Old Men, even the likable police officer in Fargo. The urge to play capricious deity is occasionally suppressed, but it’s striking that with regard to A Serious Man, the movie they considered their most personal, Ethan Coen bragged or confessed that “the fun of the story for us was inventing new ways to torture” their Job-like anti-hero, Larry Gopnik.
While most Coen characters could be considered garden variety shmeggeges, Larry Gopnik is something more culturally specific: a schlemiel. A shmeggege is merely a nitwit. The luckless and self-deceiving, well-intentioned but ineffectual schlemiel, defined by the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia as one who “handles a situation in the worst possible manner” is an existential victim—or maybe the embodiment of an existential condition. It’s been suggested by Ruth Wisse in her published doctoral dissertation The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (a title sounding like a Woody Allen gag) that for writers like Sholem Aleichem the Jews were “a kind of schlemiel people” and that his American heirs, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud et al., perfected the schlemiel as literary type.
Abandoned by his wife, betrayed by his colleagues, ignored by his children, confounded by his rabbis, Larry Gopnik could be the most fully fledged schlemiel in American fiction since the eponymous anti-hero of Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern. Stern, however, was a schlemiel in a gentile world; Gopnik is surrounded by Jews so grotesque that the movie might have been cast by Julius Streicher. (A Serious Man, as outraged Village Voice reviewer Ella Taylor wrote in a memorable rant, was “crowded with fat Jews, aggressive Jews, passive-aggressive Jews, traitor Jews, loser Jews, shyster-Jews, emo-Jews, Jews who slurp their chicken soup, and—passing as sages—a clutch of yellow-toothed, know nothing rabbis.” They are, to say the least, uniformly unlovely.)