"A Serious Man," the new movie from Joel and Ethan Coen, opens with a gnomic injunction: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." Since this is a Coen Brothers movie, the first question we must ask is, "Are they kidding?"
What follows is one of the nastier entries in the Coen Brothers' oeuvre, and I don't mean this entirely disparagingly. With the Coens, nastiness is a given. What really matters is how artful and funny and cosmic it all is. The same filmmakers who gave us "The Ladykillers," that unleavened slice of sourdough, also made the shattering "No Country for Old Men."
"A Serious Man" begins with a prologue, a Yiddish folk tale the brothers cooked up, about a ghost (or is he?) who sets upon a married couple in a Polish shtetl. (Yiddish is spoken throughout.) This intro, a cross between Isaac Bashevis Singer and Rod Serling, doesn't make much sense with the rest of the movie – except that, since the movie is about the senselessness of fate, it fits right in. Following this prologue the film jumps ahead a century to suburban 1967 Minnesota and the travails of one Larry Gopnik (the marvelous Michael Stuhlbarg, mostly known for his stage work), a physics professor with the requisite nerd costume of short-sleeved dress shirt and pocket protector.
He is, he thinks, happy. He's up for tenure at the local university and comfortably married, with two teenagers. But in this movie, being happy is like walking around with a bull's-eye on your back. In short order Larry discovers that his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) wants to divorce him for Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) a self-righteous, oleaginous family friend; his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is a pothead shirking his bar mitzvah lessons; his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) is stealing from him to pay for a nose job; his unemployable layabout brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is camping out on his sofa; a student is both bribing Larry to change a failing grade and suing him for defamation. As a bonus, someone is sending incendiary anonymous letters about Larry to the tenure committee.
The Coens have said in interviews that "the fun of the story for us was inventing new ways to torture Larry." Since Larry is just about the only person in the movie who isn't malicious, stoned, or deranged, the effect at times is like watching children pull the wings off flies for almost two hours.
The Coens also stereotype this Jewish milieu to a fare-thee-well, and the stereotypes seem to function for them as a form of Yiddish theater. As the Jewish material in such films as "Barton Fink" and "Miller's Crossing" already demonstrates, the Coens don't run from ethnic clichés. Quite the opposite. They embrace them. It's true that many of the Jews on view here are venal and grasping, but so are most of the non-Jews, including that failing student, who is Korean, and Larry's neighbor, a gun-toting survivalist type. Since the Coens have always been deeply misanthropic, it's not enough to say that "A Serious Man" makes fun of Jews. The Coens make nasty fun of everybody. This is what they do.
I would argue that "A Serious Man" is one of the Coens' most "personal" movies. They grew up Jewish in the Midwest, and some of the sequences, such as Danny's Hebrew school lessons, with the dozy students shocked into wakefulness by their testy, Old Europe instructor, have the affectionate tang of remembered experience. Larry's seeking out of rabbis for guidance is likewise affectionately tinged. And Larry himself is in a long line of holy fools in the Yiddish tradition.
The Coens may play around with that tradition, they may disparage it or mock it. But they are irrevocably a part of it, and that's all to the good. In its own smart-alecky way, "A Serious Man" adds to the ancient storehouse of Jewish black humor that takes off from the question, "What did I do wrong?" The big cosmic joke here is that Larry, who lives with the clarities of mathematics and physics, can find no clarity in the universe. Grade: B+ (Rated R for language, some sexuality/nudity. and brief violence.)