The title A Serious Man nominally refers to Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish physics in ’60s Minnesota whose life has begun to crumble around him. His wife announces she’s leaving, the tenure committee has received anonymous letters “denigrating [his] character,” a student may be attempting to bribe and/or blackmail him; and his kids are carping about the TV reception. As Gopnik suffers through it, he’s essentially a passive figure. His struggle is long, but not particularly ennobled.
A Serious Man is sort of a comedy — of the dangling, irresolute variety Joel and Ethan Coen craft with impeccable wit and off-kilter editing. The brothers grew up Jewish in Minnesota around this time, an experience indicated in that of Larry’s son Danny (Aaron Wollf), about to have his bar mitzvah, ducking bullies, experimenting with pot, and signing his hapless father up for the Columbia Record Club, whose harassing phone calls provide yet another burden.
The mundane nature of Larry’s pain keeps his Job-like story grounded. The film is often very funny, but never flies off into farce. In filling out Larry’s vaguely menacing suburban world, the Coens rely not on the movie stars cast in their recent films, but on actors like Richard Kind, who plays Arthur, Larry’s brother with a cyst in constant need of drainage. Some viewers take offense at the film’s nebbishy and sometimes grotesque Jewish characters, but this criticism mistakes general misanthropy for anti-Semitism. There are caricatures here, but then, the Coens have long been expert caricaturists, with a variety of targets.
The film is less contemptuous of Jews in particular than faith in general, as a succession of rabbis fails to provide comfort or insight into Larry’s plight. A Serious Man alludes to possible meanings in anecdotal side narratives, like the prologue where a Jewish couple encounters what may be a dybbuk, or demon, in the shape of an old friend (Fyvush Finkel), or the rabbinical story of a message found on the back of a dental patient’s teeth. But Larry can’t get a straight answer out of anyone, not his family, not his rabbi, not his lawyer, and certainly not God.
The Coens delight in this sort of cosmic joke, but their movie, despite the grotesquerie and the dead ends, feels tightly controlled, with Roger Deakins’ stark cinematography lighting the suburbs with striking, opaque whites and desaturated colors. They deploy Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” repeatedly and strategically, as an awkward burst of yearning. The madness that eventually breaks out from, say, Barton Fink, vibrates beneath the surface here, contained by the false hope of a higher power who works in mysterious but reasonable ways.
Unfortunately for Larry, his creators have been on a meaninglessness-of-the-universe kick for a while now. The shaggy-dog stories of The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou are refracted through a darker, more foreboding lens resulting in No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, and now, A Serious Man. This means another rebuke to conventional closure: A Serious Man arguably resolves even less clearly than No Country. Its haunting final shot makes an unsettling promise: this isn’t over, until suddenly it is.