Wednesday, September 30th, 2009...3:24 pm

The way we were Midwest Jews

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A Serious Man brings the renowned Coen brothers back to their peculiar Jewish milieu of St. Louis Park


Renowned filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen return to their Jewish roots in St. Louis Park, in their 14th feature film, A Serious Man. The Coen brothers shot the film at various locales around the Twin Cities last fall, including scenes of a Bar Mitzva and a funeral — involving 250 local extras and a technical crew of 100 — at B’nai Emet Synagogue, just around the corner from the AJW offices.

The fruits of the Coens’ labors will be on view to the public Oct. 2, when A Serious Man opens in New York, Los Angeles and Minneapolis.

Sari Lenick, who plays the part of Judith Gopnik in A Serious Man, says the Coen brothers are “like the best boss you’ve ever had.”Sari Lenick, who plays the part of Judith Gopnik in A Serious Man, says the Coen brothers are “like the best boss you’ve ever had.”

The protagonist of the Coens’ latest film is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a university mathematics professor who is beset with problems; some reviews of the film have compared Gopnik to the biblical Job. The suburban Minneapolis schlimazel — whose wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), is leaving him for another man; his Bar Mitzva boy son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), is smoking pot, and his daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus), wants to get a nose job — is a sort of Job-lite.

From its introductory Old World shtetl fable to its parade of rabbis and allusions to Jewish mystical practices, this is easily the most Jewish of the Coen brothers’ films, although it lacks a character as indelibly memorable as Walter Sobchak, the explosive Jewish convert played by John Goodman in The Big Lebowski.

Local Jewish viewers will find themselves scanning scenes for their friends and relatives. The Jewish details are generally accurate; however, the Gopniks’ neighbor, the alluring Mrs. Samsky, has her mezuza affixed to the left doorpost of her home. In any case, the interior of Mrs. Samsky’s house features a marvelous burnt orange color scheme, which complements her orange sleeveless top.

A Serious Man is likely the first film ever to feature the following line of dialogue: “Ruth Brin’s mother is in the hospital.” (For those who might not know, Ruth F. Brin is an acclaimed local poet and liturgist — and the Jewish World’s book critic.)

(Editor’s note: The American Jewish World sadly reports that Ruth F. Brin passed away today, Wednesday, Sept. 30. Please check back on our Web site for more about this extraordinary member of our community.)

In another scene, Larry Gopnik informs his divorce lawyer (Adam Arkin) that his brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), is in a jackpot with the law. The divorce lawyer suggests that he call Ron Meshbesher, the famed Minneapolis criminal lawyer, and warns that Ron is “not cheap.”

“The picture takes place in 1967, among a Jewish community in an unnamed Midwestern suburb; Joel and I are from the Midwest and so it’s reminiscent of our childhoods,” Ethan Coen explains, in the production notes for the film. “The milieu, the whole setting is important to us and was a big part of what got us going on this story. Where you grew up is part of your identity. That doesn’t go away, even if you’ve been away for a long time.”

There is great attention to architectural and costume details, as well as to the late-60s rock soundtrack — the Jefferson Airplane, exemplars of the San Francisco psychedelic sound, provides a musical and philosophical motif running through the film.

Joel Coen adds, “The landscape of a place informs a story a great deal, although the genesis of the project dates back many years; we considered making a short movie about a Bar Mitzva boy who goes to see an ancient rabbi. The rabbi character would be loosely based on a rabbi we knew when we were kids.”

“This rabbi we knew was a sage, a Yoda,” comments Ethan Coen. “He said nothing, but he had a lot of charisma.”

A Serious Man has fun with three rabbi characters: the young assistant, Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg); Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner), the senior rabbi; and the “Yoda” emeritus, Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell).

Some local Jewish actors have small speaking parts in the film, including Charles Brin as the Hebrew school principal, and Ari Hoptman as Arlin Finkle, one of Larry Gopnik’s faculty colleagues. The cantor in the Bar Mitzva scene is Cantor Neil Newman, recently retired as Beth El Synagogue’s hazzan.

Sari Lennick, a Miami, Fla., native who has been living in Minneapolis for the past three years, was thrilled to land the role of Judith Gopnik. She talked with the American Jewish World last week.

Asked about her experience of working for the Coen brothers, Lennick says, “They obviously wrote [the film], directed it… but once you step on the set with them, they hand you ownership of the role, which makes it this incredible work experience — it’s like the best boss you’ve ever had.”

She adds, “It’s an extraordinary work environment. They believed in me, which made me want to make them proud every single day.”

Judith Gopnik is not an overly sympathetic character. Judith informs her husband early in the film that she is seeing another man, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a lubricious character who apparently embodies the “serious” qualities she seeks in a man. Judith tells Larry that there has been no “whoopee doopie” between her and Sy. Larry is banished to the Jolly Roger Motel, where he shares a dingy room with his brother Arthur.

“I see her as someone who has made some decisions, and some very clear decisions,” Lennick says about her character. “We meet her 16 years into this marriage; so we don’t know what it took to get her to the point when we meet her in the film. We don’t know what kind of soft edges have been roughed over time.”

Judith Gopnik likely has experienced a “lot of disappointment” — her “marriage did not go the way she expected,” Lennick suggests.

“I actually believe that Judith and Larry moved to Minneapolis on the promise of what his career could bring,” she says, adding that Judith probably questions whether her husband’s professional success “has matched the loss she experienced moving here.”

Lennick graduated from the University of Southern California, in 1997, with a bachelor’s degree in theater and philosophy. She acted in Los Angeles, before moving to New York City. There she earned a MFA in acting from the Actors Studio at The New School, and had some stage roles.

After seven years of pursuing acting in New York, Lennick suggested that her husband, Alan Lennick, a Minneapolis native, investigate some job possibilities in the Twin Cities. He owns a financial advisory practice of Ameriprise Financial in Waconia. The couple, who live in Minneapolis, have a two-year-old son named Dylan.

Lennick says that she wants to help A Serious Man get a successful send-off. And she would like to act in other feature films.

Until the next part comes along, Lennick hopes that her young son will grow up with the admirable personality traits she sees in Midwestern-bred men like her husband and the Coen brothers.

“The goal is to stay and raise my son here,” she says.


A Serious Man opens Oct. 2, in an exclusive engagement at the Uptown Theatre in Minneapolis.


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