The Coen Brothers and the Return of the Middle-Aged Jewish Man

By Jason Diamond

Using names like Woody Allen, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Leonard Michaels, a case could be made that there is an entire genre focusing solely on the neurosis of middle-aged Jewish men. John Updike must have thought so, take his character Henry Bech for proof. But while Bellow, Michaels, and the WASP king Updike are all dead, Roth is still good (a bit depressing maybe, but in a good way) and Allen is more content on using hot Spaniards as inspiration. The closest Woody has come to chasing his Hebrew muse in the last fifteen years was in his somewhat disappointing latest film, Whatever Works, starring Larry David, who oddly enough has become some twisted, misanthropic Atlas, complaining about his back problems and holding up the world of the 40-55 year old sect of the tribe.
But, hey! The Coen brothers are both in the first half of their 50’s, and while they have had a few Jewish characters (The Shmata in Millers Crossing, Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski), they haven’t really made their ‘Jewish film’ yet. Of course that will all change with the release of A Serious Man, a film that doesn’t take place in the East Coast haunts of Arthur Miller, Allen, or Roth, but in the Minnesota neighborhood of St. Louis Park that Joel and Ethan Coen grew up in. From this preview we see an existential dilema, suburban sprawl, and a rabbi that just doesn’t have time to hear your problem. Couple this with the fact that the brothers are working on an adaptation of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and we might be in the midst of a mini-renaissance here.

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  1. Yeah, but the movie, from the trailer, is set in the distant past. As a 58 yo man, I loved the writers/filmmakers you mention when I was younger – along with more experimental writers of the same generation who were Jewish men – but those things all seem so dated now to me, an exercise in nostalgia.

  2. I think growing up around the middle aged Jewish men in my family made I've just always been fascinated by the writers and directors. I'm curious who the more experimental ones are tho. Any suggestions?

    Tobias, yeh, I know the synopsis of Barton Fink, but regrettably it's the only film by them I haven't seen. There are Jewish elements it would seem by reading Wikipedia. I'll go watch it this week