If we take A Serious Man as a guide, we can speculate that Joel and Ethan Coen view the universe in one of several ways: It is either godless, presided over by a deity who's entirely indifferent to the plight of humanity, or, more probably, the work of a God who treats humans as if they were lab rats in an experiment that simultaneously serves as a cosmic joke.
Darkly funny and even gloomy, A Serious Man might be the most peculiar and least expected Coen brothers' movie yet, a rueful meditation on the ways in which Jews suffer without benefit of consoling answers to angst-filled questions. The movie takes place during the '60s in a midwestern suburb that supposedly resembles the Minnesota town in which the Coens were raised. In this case, the past becomes a hotbed of discontent.
Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnick, a physics professor whose life is unraveling. Larry's sweating out a decision by the tenure committee at his college. His wife (Sari Lennick) says she's running off with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). His son (Aaron Wolff) listens to Jefferson Airplane and smokes pot. His daughter (Jessica McManus) is a typically clueless teen-ager. And those are just clips from the highlight reel.
Before the Coens arrive in this midwestern hell, they treat us to a prologue set in an Eastern European shtetl where the characters speak Yiddish. This mini-story (about the way in which a dybbuk or malicious spirit invades the lives of a hapless couple) sets the tone and allows us to toy with a frighteningly amusing idea: Woe can be transmitted through time. It can become an inheritance.
Larry's story has been compared to that of Job, but it hardly seems to have the epic quality of Job's travails. It's Job in a shoebox. Besides, Job received a bit of divinely initiated solace at the end of his ordeal. No such comfort awaits Larry Gopnick for whom life has become a kind of loaded revolver, ready to go off at the slightest bump.
Troubled by his eroding sense of security, Larry seeks counsel from various rabbis. These encounters make for some of the movie's funniest scenes, notably an interview in which one of the rabbis suggests that Larry look through the window of the rabbi's study and find wonder in the parking lot. Of course, there's wonder in all creation, but a parking lot?
Then there's the story of the dentist who finds Hebrew letters on the back of a gentile's teeth. Inexplicably, the letters spell out the words, "Help me." It's almost as if the Coens are standing outside each frame saying, "You know how absurd the world is, and you're asking us for meaning?" In that sense, the picture is both a courageous comedy and sober rebuke.
Larry's confrontation with suffering has a uniquely Jewish flavor. Why else contrast the man's plight with the lives of his gentile neighbor, a scowling father who takes his son hunting or plays endless games of catch in the backyard? Larry looks at these "goyish" activities with the puzzlement of a space alien who's unable to decipher the customs of Earthlings.
The laughter generated by A Serious Man can leave a bitter aftertaste, and some of the movie's references may elude those who are unfamiliar with Jewish culture.
But the point remains clear: Much of what happens we'll never figure out, although we know it has the power to torment us. The Coens are well attuned to the joke potential in such a statement. The audience for A Serious Man probably needs to share some of the Coens' world view. And why not? After all, a joke without pain is a joke without bite and hardly worthy of the telling.