As filmmakers, the Coen Brothers (“No Country for Old Men”) get to play God. In their new comedy “A Serious Man,” the brothers (and God) are pretty capricious.
Welcome to the nightmare world of a modern-day Job, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg from “Cold Souls”). In spite of the fact that Larry seems to be a perfectly decent fellow, all manner of troubles befall him.
They year is 1967 and Larry is a physics professor at a suburban Minnesota college. All he wants is tenure.
But Larry’s wife wants a divorce to marry his best friend, his son is a pothead who listens to Jefferson Airplane on his transistor radio during Hebrew School, his foul-mouthed daughter steals money from his wallet to save up for a nose job, his slacker brother spends most of his time draining a cyst in the bathroom, he’s being bribed (and blackmailed) by a Korean student who wants a better grade, and he’s being relentlessly hounded by a bill collector.
In spite of the fact that he’s got a brilliant mind, Larry is clueless as to why life is handing him so many trials. He can write elaborate mathematical equations that support Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle but can’t see how life could be so uncertain.
So, he visits some rabbis whose words of comfort are generally worthless. Their platitudes are nearly as tormenting as those of his unctuous pal Sy Abelman (brilliantly played by voiceover actor Fred Melemed) who is trying to steal away Larry’s wife.
The Coens certainly have a bleak worldview and their attitude toward their Jewish upbringing and traditions seems downright contemptuous.
But there is no denying that every aspect of this dark comedy is meticulously crafted. The script is sharp, the depiction of Jewish middle class life seems precise, the 60s-era period details are superb and the casting is spot on.
But one can’t quite get over the feeling that this is an inside joke and most Gentile viewers simply won’t get it.
The film begins with a prologue about a Jewish couple in Eastern Europe a hundred years ago. They’ve visited by what may be a “dybbuk”, an evil spirit that has possessed a human body. By inviting this specter into their home, they may have brought on a curse.
Is this the source of Larry’s troubles? No answer is evident, which seems to be the Coen’s point. Even this, as Heisenberg would attest, is uncertain. (R) Rating: ***
* Avoid at all costs
** Only if you're bored
*** Good movie
**** Well worth your time
***** Be sure to see it