It's not all Fargo Oscars and No Country for Old Men box-office glory for the filmmaking Coen brothers. Sometimes they stumble and give us a bad movie that's deliriously watchable, a Big Lebowski. Sometimes they drop a challenging, worthwhile film that you won't ever want to watch again (Barton Fink).
A Serious Man teeters closer to the latter than the former. This, their "'60s movie" the way No Country was their '80s movie and O Brother Where Art Thou? was their '30s picture, is a cryptic Minnesota-Jewish riff on the biblical Book of Job. Their most inside joke ever, it leaves you with a lot to chew on, if not a lot to enjoy.
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg doing a decent, damp slow burn) is a physics professor hoping only for tenure at his suburban Minneapolis college and for his foul-mouthed pothead son (Aaron Wolf) not to shame him by botching his bar mitzvah.
It's not looking good. The boy listens to Jefferson Airplane on his transistor radio in Hebrew school and gripes incessantly that the poor TV reception ruins F-Troop for him at home. A combative Korean student of Larry's accuses him of giving an "unjust" test and starts to make trouble. A Gentile but not gentle neighbor with a thing for hunting and encroaching on their shared property line is testing Larry. His insufferable, aimless brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is visiting and hogging the bathroom with his incessant cyst-draining.
Then Larry's wife (Sarai Lennick) drops the bomb. She's fallen for a passive-aggressive widower in their synagogue (Fred Melamed) and wants a "get," a "ritual divorce." The other man, Sy, pleasantly insists that they all be "adult" about this. Larry, mensch that he is, just goes along.
With each new body blow we wince for Larry, hope he'll grow some spine and either find comfort through his faith, like Job, or renounce it and stick up for himself. We puzzle over the afterthought female characters and scratch our chins at how Arthur fits into all this.
"All this" follows a Yiddish prologue in the Old Country (Poland) at the end of the 19th century, a poor couple's encounter with an evil spirit — a dybbuk. Is that what Larry is facing, evil? Would he cope better if he were a more pious Jew? Does the rabbi's parable of "The Goy Teeth" advance the story or clarify anything?
Hebrew words and phrases pepper the inane advice of the rabbis and Sy's pushy, pious hypocrisy.
Whatever the Coens are working out about their own Minnesota childhood and relationship with their faith, they come nowhere near resolving it. The sense of a closed, tribal world of ceremony, tradition and ritual joins to a period-perfect, knotty pine-paneled design. But this is the movie equivalent of the old Jewish joke: "Why does a Jew answer a question with a question?" "Why not?"
What's clear is how this fits within that long, spotty track record of the Coens, exactly the sort of film they release after some dazzling success. Sometimes, Serious or not, they don't quite deliver.