Koch on Film


By Ed Koch

“A Serious Man” (+)

I enjoyed this unusual film (written, produced and directed by the Coen brothers) very much.

It opens a century ago in Poland, with a long scene involving a husband, his wife, and a possible Dybbuk (a Dybbuk is a feared living creature inhabiting the body of a dead person, usually associated with evil). The Dybbuk is played by Fyvush Finkel, a well-known New York actor whom I have met and once joined with in celebrating an event at the old 2nd Avenue Deli in Manhattan.  Oh, the good old days.

The movie is about a modern but religious Jewish family living in Minnesota in the late ‘60s. The father, Michael (Larry Gopnik), is a physics professor at a local college. His wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), is going through a midlife crisis and having an affair with a widower, Sy (Fred Melamed). Michael and Judith have two children: Danny (Aaron Wolff) who is studying for his bar mitzvah, and Sarah (Jessica McManus), a teenager whose major concern appears to be washing her hair. Finally, there is Larry’s brother, Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind) — who sleeps on the sofa, seems to be mentally unstable and spends an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom.

Larry appears as a modern-day Job, visited repeatedly with a series of problems too difficult for most people to handle. His wife reveals her affair and asks Larry to move to a motel, which he obediently does. Larry is being threatened by a student and is offered a bribe by the boy’s father to give his son a passing grade. At the same time, Larry (being considered for tenure) is told by a friend on the tenure committee that it has received anonymous letters attacking his character.

I, like Larry, enjoyed the canonical music, felt very comfortable in the synagogue and was surprised by the virulence of his neighbor’s anti-Semitism. The entire script is a mishmash: funny, droll, and anxiety producing — just like daily life in many Jewish families.

I enjoyed watching it all unfold, wondering what gentiles and Jews in Minnesota and elsewhere will think of the film. “A Serious Man” is not a typical film, but one that this Jewish kid from the Bronx thoroughly enjoyed.

I saw the picture at the Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema, on the Lower East Side.  The 1898 building was formerly a Yiddish vaudeville house and the Houston Hippodrome Movie Theater. The current theater shows popular and artsy films and has wonderful stadium-style seating allowing a view of the entire screen.

HS said: “It was a pleasure to see a thoroughly Jewish movie, without gore and without hysteria. There was sarcasm in dealing with Rabbis and teachers, but the principles of helping others and doing your best are upheld as core values. The great gifts of the Coen brothers are put to use here in depicting one honest and just man, Larry, bedeviled by the modern equivalent of Job’s trials. Parts of the movie are “galgenlieder” (gallows humor), but well done.”

Rated R; 1hour, 40 minutes. At Sunshine Cinema (143 East Houston St.). For screening times, call 212-330-8182.

“The Boys Are Back” (+)

While not rising to the status of first rate, this film is interesting and worth seeing.

Sportswriter Joe Warr (Clive Owen) lives in Australia with his second wife, Katy (Laura Fraser) and their eight-year-old son, Artie (Nicholas McAnulty). Katy dies of cancer, and Joe and Artie are emotionally destroyed. Joe, who is a loving dad, proceeds to allow Artie to do whatever he wants. Fortunately, the unusual freedom does not seem to have a deleterious effect on Artie. Before long, Joe’s teenage son, Harry (George MacKay) — who lives in England with Joe’s first wife Flick (Natasha Little), pops in for a visit. Harry has issues with his dad.

Joe is asked by his boss to cover an out-of-town tennis game. Not wanting to leave his sons home alone, he decides to cover the match on the web. When he ultimately departs for the match, the house is vandalized by local hooligans. Harry feels responsible for allowing it to happen on his watch, and he angrily returns to his mother’s home in England. Joe and Artie follow him, and there begins a second story involving Harry and his relationship with his dad. 

The plot could have turned into one big soap opera, but did not for me due to the gifted acting of the entire cast — including Laura Fraser as Katy (who appears as a talking specter after she dies).  I saw the movie at the Angelika Film Center, a truly unique theater in SoHo.

Rated PG-13; 144 minutes. At Angelika Film Center & Café (18 West Houston St.). For screening times, call (212) 995-2000.