"A Serious Man" is the kind of picture you get to make after you've won an Oscar. A small film about being Jewish in a Midwestern suburb in 1967, this will be seen as a particularly personal project from Joel and Ethan Coen, and their talent for putting their characters through the wringer in peculiarly funny ways flourishes here on their home turf. With scarcely a familiar name in the entire cast, this Focus release will have to fly on the brothers' names alone, which in this case will mean OK biz in limited playoff in urban areas.
The '60s as we think of them are just barely beginning to touch this insular world of ranch housing, scientific academia, Hebrew school and very square clothing choices, and then only through pubescent Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff), who gets high and listens to Jefferson Airplane when he's supposed to be preparing for his bar mitzvah.
But shouldering a weight of woes worthy of Job is Danny's father, Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg), and the trials he must suffer are relentless enough to -- in a buoyant, comical way -- call into question the meaning of life and the nature of God's intentions for his chosen ones. Physics professor Larry is afflicted by his pain-in-the-tuchus brother Arthur (Richard Kind), who's sleeping on the couch with no prospects of leaving; wife Judith (Sari Lennick), who abruptly announces she's leaving him for widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), an overbearing smooth talker and "serious man"; burgeoning pothead son Danny and nose-job-seeking daughter Sarah (Jessicca McManus); a gun-toting redneck next-door neighbor; a failing student who simultaneously bribes and threatens to sue him; and an anonymous letter-writing campaign that may derail his chances for tenure.
If this all sounds like enough material to last a situation comedy for a full season, that's not the way the Coens play it. One doesn't know how (auto)biographical any or all of this is, but there's a tartness to the telling of what amounts to a well-shaped series of anecdotes that bespeaks distant pain or, at least, wincing memory twisted into mordant comedy by time and sensibility. The prevailing strain of humor makes serious light of the characters' foibles in a way that could make some Jews uncomfortable, to the extent that, for certain people, the film might fall into the category of Jewish caricature, even self-hatred.
But to anyone accustomed to the Coens' dark humor through years of exposure, the tone here, on balance, is benign enough. A curious Yiddish-language prologue set in a Polish shtetl establishes a framework in which vigorous disputation and discernment of divine intent are among life's requisites, and so it remains, as Larry, the downtrodden schlemiel and once and future outcast, shuffles among multiple rabbis and lawyers in an attempt to make sense of what is happening to him. Larry, who deals with mathematical certainties in his work, otherwise confronts uncertainties at best and the unknowable at worst, and the most any of the rabbis can do is to say there are some things we're just not meant to know.
This, in a way, gets the Coens themselves off the hook for not attaching any concrete meaning to life or their movie. But strung along the narrative clothesline of debilitating events are moments that blur the boundaries between the irrational, the improbable and the merely intriguing: An elaborate tale of a Jewish dentist who finds Hebrew letters spelling out the words "Help Me" on the backside of a goy's teeth; a sultry neighbor (Amy Landecker) who sunbathes nude and offers to put Larry's moral standards to the test; a bar mitzvah convincingly staged through the eyes of a totally stoned 13-year-old; and fantasies of WASPs on a Jew-hunt.
More than anything, "A Serious Man" would seem to represent a moderately jaundiced memoir of a specific time and place, that being the Minnesota of the Coens' youth. Many such quasi-autobiographical works in literature and film take the form of an escape story by a gifted soul just too sensitive or different to cope any longer with a restrictive environment. To the contrary, the Coens have chosen to identify not with the son but with the father, a man who, as narrative circumstances play out, could have decided to bail out at a certain point. But such a thing never occurs to him for an instant.
Certainly, the Coens' filmmaking skills are sharply attentive to the occasion. Precision is the name of the game in the writing, camera placement, editing, music choices and pitch of the performances, which are poised just so between heightened naturalism and comic stylization.