A Serious Man
Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind
Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
Rated R

Just when the Coens seem to have written one too many Burn After Readings or Intolerable Crueltys to beg our forgiveness, along comes A Serious Man to suggest the brothers grim haven’t lost their mojo. A more philosophical, Jewish spin on the bumper sticker existentialism “life sucks, and then you die,” A Serious Man is a navel-gazing glimpse into the abyss of existence and an homage to the Biblical tale of Job.

Without celeb star power and with an opening fable filmed entirely in Yiddish, A Serious Man may be the hardest of sells for the Coens, but it is the most worthy too: painfully comic, rueful to its core, and capable of leaving Coen fans giddy with the sense that they have returned to form.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a Jewish physics professor at an unnamed Midwestern college in 1967 whose life may be most notable for being utterly uneventful. Larry appears to want for nothing, but there is a void waiting to be filled in that kind of contented emptiness. With the force of a universe or a god trying to alert Larry to the condition of being alive, things begin to shift first in minor ways, and then in major ones, alerting him to the unpleasant but vivid condition of “being.”

The drama begins to ratchet up when Korean student Clive Park (David Kang) visits Larry’s office with a packet filled with cash, suggesting Larry might want to reconsider his failing grade. It’s a moral quandary and test of a decent man’s mettle only intensified by his wife Judith’s (Sari Lennick) unexpected news that she’s divorcing him and has found a soulmate in oily widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who tries to ameliorate Larry’s pain with a bottle of burgundy and a smarmy bear hug.

Larry’s moral compass is suddenly thrown out of whack: everyone else seems out for themselves, and only Larry operates with a sense of integrity. Suddenly, Larry’s life seems bracketed by despair. His next-door neighbor is a racist who seethes with rage at the very sight of him, and an anonymous letter writer is trying to sabotage his attempt to get tenure.

Meanwhile, his downtrodden brother Arthur (Richard Kind) moves in to their already cramped suburban ranch toting a handheld irrigation system to drain the cyst growing on his neck.

As for Larry’s two teenage children Sarah (Jessica McManus) and Danny (Aaron Wolff), they alone are a glimpse into the despairing black hole of nothingness: the pair are vain, quibbling brats with the emotional depth of mollusks. Larry’s only crime appears to be existence, and, as he blurts out to one of the rabbis he consults for help, a one-time viewing of a racy Swedish film.

A Serious Man is about the kind of spiritual and bureaucratic nightmares that quickly become indistinguishable for Larry. The Columbia Record Club salesman who won’t stop badgering Larry becomes part of the same grim bundle as unctuous Sy, who suggests that Larry would be much happier moving out of his own house and into the local motel, the Jolly Roger. Such is the fickle nature of the universe which allows overstuffed loafers like Sy to flourish while hard-working saps like Larry are bamboozled by bad luck.

A Serious Man is comedy of the darkest sort, much of it generated by the astoundingly casual cruelty of Larry’s progeny whose lives center around endless preparations for teenage shindigs at an area gathering spot, The Hole, and avoiding an ass-kicking courtesy of the neighborhood drug dealer.

The opening scene, shot entirely in Yiddish in the old country, hints that once there were fables and superstitions to light our way, but now, who knows? When Larry consults a string of rabbis hoping for guidance (as well as a lawyer, a doctor, and the sexy woman next door), they offer no prescription or even insight into his crisis beyond some vague advice about living in the moment and how the ways of the Lord are mysterious.

Suburbia has never looked more doomed and tragic than it does in A Serious Man, a blank, windblown way station before passage into that great subdivision in the sky.

But in place of the offbeat Others and freaky exotics that tend to populate Coensville, in A Serious Man, the Coens have chosen material closer to home, drawn from their own upbringing in a Minneapolis suburb. There is a familiarity and coziness to these characters that suggests — if not affection — then at least intimacy. The female characters here may be largely grotesques with pitch-black hearts and tree-trunk legs — some critics have seen anti-Semitic caricature in these outsized Jewish characters — but you sense an emotional connection on the Coens’ behalf to the characters, where there has not always been one before. In this regard, A Serious Man benefits tremendously from its cast of mostly nobodies.