The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, are getting personal. They shot their new film in suburban Minnesota, where they grew up as sons of Jewish academics. But if you’re expecting something warm and fuzzy, circa 1967, you don’t know the Coens, and A Serious Man is no country for you. This seriously funny movie, artfully photographed by the great Roger Deakins, is spiritual in nature, barbed in tone, and, oh, yeah, it stings like hell.
Front and center is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor who’s getting shit from every side. Unsigned letters to the dean question his ethics and threaten his tenure. His son, Danny (the excellent Aaronolff), days away from his bar mitzvah, is lost in a pot daze. His daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus), is obsessed with getting a nose job. His unemployed brother, Arthur (a wonderfully kinky Richard Kind), is crashing on his couch. And his wife, Judith (a pitch-perfect Sari Lennick), is leaving him for slimy, silver-tongued Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a serious man.
Larry is being tested like Job, with the Coens playing God and lobbing bolts at him, including a Jew-hating neighbor and a nude lady sunbather who stirs his libido. Larry’s divorce lawyer (a deadpan Adam Arkin) warns him to expect the worst. So Larry seeks counsel and comfort from multiple rabbis, who deliver silence or cryptic bromides. Grace Slick, on the radio, gets closer to the point, singing, “When the truth is found to be lies/And all the joy within you dies/Don’t you want somebody to love.”
Indeed. No doubt the Coens will grin at accusations of stereotyping, self-loathing and box-office suicide. They march to their own mischievous drummer. Larry keeps asking, “Why me?” and stage actor Stuhlbarg, Tony-nominated for The Pillowman, is outstanding at showing the humanity that keeps the question urgent. Larry gets the worst of both worlds, sacred and secular. The film starts with a Yiddish-language prologue, set a century ago in Poland, in which a couple open their door to find a needy neighbor who may be a dybbuk (demon) in disguise. Larry is similarly bedeviled. But that sound you hear in this profane spellbinder is the Coens — chuckling in the dark.