The Coen brothers' films have always been funny, cerebral, hermetic, sardonic to the point of nihilism, and preoccupied with human suffering but allergic to sentimentality. In short, they've always been Jewish. But the previously subterranean kinship between the brothers' cultural identity and their movies' subject matter is finally made plain in A Serious Man (Focus Features), the Coens' most autobiographical work so far. (It may be their only remotely autobiographical film, assuming they weren't raised by Irish gangsters, Texas mass murderers, or permanently stoned L.A. bowlers.) The Coens' shared sensibility was forged in the Jewish enclaves of suburban Minneapolis in the late 1960s, and that's where they've set this peculiar religious fable. A Serious Man kicks off with a Yiddish-language frame story that takes place in a 19th-century Eastern European shtetl, where a married couple has an enigmatic encounter with an old acquaintance who may be a dybbuk, or malevolent spirit (and who's played by the Yiddish theater actor Fyvush Finkel). The import of this parable is cryptic to the point of inscrutability, making it a perfect introduction to the rest of the movie.
After the credits, we move from the shtetl to the tract home of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Minneapolis physics professor who's got more than his share of tsuris. His tenure review is being sabotaged by an anonymous hate-mailer, and a disgruntled student is attempting to bribe him. His wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), wants to leave him for his unctuous neighbor, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Instead of studying for his bar mitzvah, Larry's son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is smoking pot and stealing money from his sister Sarah (Jessica McManus)—money that Sarah herself sneaks from her father's wallet. There's also the matter of Larry's brother Arthur (Richard Kind), a lonely, unemployable wreck who lives in the Gopniks' living room and spends his days scribbling in a notebook he calls "the Mentaculus," an incomprehensible probability map that Arthur swears will one day explain the future course of the universe.
Larry has always considered himself a good man, but this convergence of ill fortune throws him into a spiritual crisis. He tries to consult with three rabbis. The youngest (Simon Hellberg) can offer only chipper platitudes, the second (George Wyner) recounts an oft-told and apparently pointless story he calls "The Goy's Teeth," and the third, the ancient and venerated Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell), refuses to see him. The harder Larry searches for meaning and purpose in his life, the more random his misfortunes seem. "Actions have consequences," Larry warns a wayward physics student, but in this world, just the reverse seems to be true. What is the significance of the symbols and portents that seem to be piling up everywhere Larry looks (the Mentaculus, the equations on his classroom blackboard, the Hebrew characters that appear mysteriously inscribed on the goy's teeth)? And given Larry's Job-like persistence in the face of suffering, what does Judith mean when she tells Larry that unlike him, his rival, the insufferable Sy Ableman, is "a serious man"?
You could know the Kabbalah inside out and still struggle with these mysteries every bit as fruitlessly as Larry does (though a familiarity with Jewish arcana would no doubt help you to pick up on the jokes embedded in every scene). And that's just how his creators want it. Though the movie concerns a specifically Jewish crisis of faith (and paints a satiric but lovingly precise portrait of Jewish-American culture), A Serious Man unfolds in a moral universe that's recognizable from earlier Coen films. It's a cruel and ultimately inexplicable place. What Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem's pitiless mass murderer, was to No Country for Old Men, the Hebrew God (whom the characters refer to with the respectful, indirect name of "Hashem") is to this movie.
It may be that signature nihilism that keeps me from signing up unreservedly for the Coen brothers' fan club. A Serious Man is an exquisitely realized work; the filmmakers' technical mastery of their craft, always impressive, has become absolute. The script reads like a novel, densely allusive, funny, and terse. The casting of near-unknowns in all the major roles (Michael Stuhlbarg is a renowned Broadway actor but unfamiliar to movie audiences) was a stroke of genius, and every performance is impeccable, as is the lambent cinematography by Roger Deakins (the Coens' longtime collaborator). The costume design and set design (by Mary Zophres and Jess Gonchor) brilliantly evoke the staid and clannish world of semi-assimilated Midwestern Jews (a group for whom the new mores of the '60s arrived much later than for the urban gentiles of Mad Men).
But the Coens' degree of control over their audience's aesthetic experience can feel almost claustrophobic. Though they re-create the world of their childhood with archival exactitude, they keep the audience always at a remove; they're as unforthcoming with their secrets as God is to poor Larry. A Serious Man comes within a hair's breadth of being a very serious film, a funny and nuanced exploration of chance, justice, and faith. As Larry's multiple misfortunes converge and the fateful day of Danny's bar mitzvah approaches, there's a sense that some important truth—if not about God's plan, then at least about the Coens'—is lurking just under the movie's perfect surface. But the doubter in me never got over the suspicion that the Coens may only be fucking with Larry, and with us.
Slate V: The critics on A Serious Man and other new releases: