You could say that A Serious Man, with its blankly boxed-up suburban streets, is the film that Joel and Ethan Coen always meant to make. Raised in the Minneapolis suburbs during the ’60s, they went on build up and tear down one film genre after another, from westerns to screwball comedies to noir. Their first return to the land of their youth, Fargo, was a chilly comedy, peeling back the stolid veneer of Minnesota nice to find both heartfelt decency and baleful madness beneath. It had its moments, but there was something of the vengeful adolescent in its humor.
Now, with A Serious Man, the Coens plug in numerous laughs, but hedge them with a view of the universe that’s more skeptically searching than it is their usual reflexive cynicism. The joke might be (once again) on the sincere fools populating these arid communities, but behind it lies a sense of genuine pain that approaches the existential.
The one-line pitch for the film is that it’s the Book of Job reframed as literary farce in a Midwestern Jewish suburban enclave. The Coens’ punching bag this time (and none of their protagonists since Barton Fink has had a tougher time of it) is Larry Gopnick, played with sublimely theatrical “why me?” pathos by the wonderful Michael Stuhlbarg. Larry is a meek physics professor who lives his life in a minor key. He offers hardly a peep when his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) says she’s leaving him for an unctuous friend of theirs, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). He quietly suffers the slings and arrows of his obnoxious teenage children, Sarah (Jessica McManus) and Danny (Aaron Wolff), a pothead who listens to Jefferson Airplane and watches F-Troop reruns. Then there’s Larry’s no-good brother Arthur (Richard Kind), who might be a mathematical genius but is sponging off the family and getting them into legal trouble.
Larry goes to the authorities to resolve his various problems. But help seems unlikely. The lawyers don’t have much to offer besides bills and the rabbis provide parables that disassemble quickly into nonsense. Even the libertine neighbor (Amy Landecker), who sunbathes nude, proves ineffective when it come to soothing his rattled nerves. It’s a brutal maze that Larry wanders through, where God ultimately doesn’t seem to be far away but instead quite nearby, and making a malicious joke of Larry’s life.
A Serious Man is really a string of parables, from the rabbi’s hilarious story of a Jewish dentist’s search for the meaning behind the Hebrew letters he finds carved into the backs of a patient’s teeth (they spell “Help Me”), to the film’s darkly fascinating Yiddish-language preamble, a ghost story set in an archetypal shtetl. What holds them together, besides Larry’s flailing and frequently comic despair, is a sense of philosophic dread. The Coens might be having a good time riffing on their Job’s hyperbolic cluelessness, but for almost the first time in their careers, they have twined that jabbing satire with a deeper sense of the tragic. The dual, disastrous twists the film takes at its end are chilling testaments to a possibly random existence, where virtue isn’t rewarded and any belief that it might be is met with only desolate laughter.