Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man opens with a freshly minted Jewish folktale set inside a hovel in a wintry 19th century Eastern European shtetl and performed in Yiddish with English subtitles. A married couple is paid a visit by an old man (Fyvush Finkel) who is supposed to have died. The husband accepts his guest's jolly assurances that reports of his death were premature, but the wife is convinced they're dealing with a dybbuk, a dangerous ghostly presence. Because she's the no-nonsense member of the family, the story ends with Finkel staggering to the door with blood oozing from his chest as he declaims, "One knows when one isn't wanted."
When the wife slams the door in the camera's face, it casts the screen into darkness, and the opening credits begin charging at the viewer as the opening riffs of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" reel the action closer, but not all the way, to the present time. It's the kind of audio-visual combination that feels so mysteriously right that you know the Coens have become the kind of masters who, through some mix of planning and instinct, can get whatever effects they want to achieve. It's what the effects are supposed to mean and why the filmmakers' want to achieve them that sometimes remain an open question.
Most of A Serious Man is set in a suburban Jewish community in Minneapolis in the late 1960s. (From most of the visual and verbal clues available, it's 1967, the year of the Six-Day War between a triumphant Israel and its Arab neighbors, though a telephone collections agent from the always cutting-edge Columbia House record club seems to be calling from three years in the future. Maybe the Coens just thought the line "I don't want Santana Abraxas!" is funnier than "I don't want Donovan Mellow Yellow!")
The hero, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), is a high school physics professor who peppers his lectures with Philosophy 101 chestnuts, such as Schrödinger's cat, and whose life is coming apart at the seams both at home and work. A Korean student who says he appreciates the stories Larry tells ("I understand the dead cat.") but can't comprehend the math, is protesting a failing grade and may have left the cash-filled envelope that Larry finds on his desk as a bribe. Someone is endangering his chance to get tenure by sending hateful letters about him to his bosses. At home he has to contend with unappreciative kids, an unemployable wreck of a live-in brother (Richard Kind) and a wife who wants a divorce because she's fallen in love with their neighbor, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a flatulent jerk whom she extols as "a serious man."
Larry mostly deals with all this selflessly, if not stoically. He indulges himself in the occasional whine, but for the most part struggles to deal respectfully with his tormentors and do his best by everyone. This modern Job does seek the counsel of a succession of three rabbis, all of whom fail to give him any useful advice, though one of them (George Wyner) gets to narrate an oddball parable about a Jewish dentist who discovers Hebrew letters engraved on the teeth of a Gentile patient. A Serious Man has a number of standout sequences such as the prologue and the rabbi's tale, as well as a dream of escape to a new frontier that ends with a horrifying jolt that, like the hand coming out of the grave in Carrie, is all the more effective because you should have seen it coming. But the pieces don't really build into a greater, coherent whole.
The movie feels diffuse and unsatisfying, because it never becomes clear whether Larry is meant to be a hero or a saint or just a human piñata, or even how the Coens want viewers to react to his suffering. Michael Stuhlbarg, an acclaimed theater actor whose film career has consisted of small roles in a few movies such as the current Cold Souls and Afterschool, has to bear part of the responsibility for this. He provides a quiet, thoughtful character study of a decent but unimaginative and uncharismatic man, and he may have given the Coens the performance they asked for. But the Coens are hyperbolic filmmakers whose movies have always worked best with a flamboyant star turn at the center. As different as the wild clowning of Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona was from Javier Bardem's crazy eyes peering out of the shadows in No Country for Old Men, they both supplied an outsize personality from which the movie felt like a natural emanation. Without a strong central character to hold it together, a Coen brothers film can fall apart into detachable images and conceits and leave you scratching your head about what it all means.
A Serious Man has been greeted as a major breakthrough for the Coens, because after 25 years of putting together wild, baroque contrivances, they've made a movie that has some autobiographical connection to their actual lives: Joel and Ethan Coen grew up in a suburban Jewish community in Minnesota and were, respectively, 12 and 10 in the spring of 1967. Larry has one son, Danny (Aaron Woolf), whose bar mitzvah, which he attends stoned, provides the climax to the picture. The Coens have said they originally meant for the father and the son to share equal stature as co-protagonists of the movie, and they may have decided to de-emphasize the wrong character. Danny's problems, such as how he's going to get the money to pay off his pot dealer now that his sister, whom he's been stealing from, has been having trouble lifting money from Dad's wallet, may not be as pressing as his father's, but the movie has a clearer perspective on them and actually conveys them with a bit more urgency.
I have no objection to the Coens "growing" as artists, but in A Serious Man, their attempt to look to their own past for material leads not to a deepening of their viewpoint but a palpable confusion about what they want to say. The result, too often, feels like a milieu in search of a movie.