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"A Serious Man" Is Seriously Funny

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When the truth is found to be lies /

and all the joy within you dies /

don't you want somebody to love /

Don't you need somebody to love?

—Jefferson Airplane (1967)

It's hard to know how to read A Serious Man, the new film by Ethan and Joel Coen. Is it a Biblical allegory retelling the story of put-upon Job? A fictitious re-imagining of the brothers' own Midwestern upbringing? Or is it something more complex, a mashed-up amalgamation of current cultural perceptions, archaic Jewish folklore and their own razor-sharp observations on the human condition?

Although answers are not always apparent and easily deciphered with a Coen film, it's almost guaranteed that all the details--whether it's a sebaceous neck cyst or a jar-preserved moth--have some particular and significant meaning, even if merely to add to the atmosphere of odd. It's also a given that you'll probably never puzzle it all out.

It's 1967, and Jewish physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is finding his personal life as disorderly as his class equations are systematic. Pre-bar mitzvah son Danny (Aaron Wolff) filches cash for marijuana while daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) does the same for a secret nose job. Larry's socially inept brother Arthur (Richard Kind) sleeps on the couch, while wife Judith (Sari Lennick) has been seeing the inappropriately affable Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Although not a particularly religious man, Larry seeks out the advice of three rabbis, desperate to regain equilibrium in his personal and professional life. But the learned men only provide obtuse answers and catch-all analogies, and Larry's existential crisis peaks with two simultaneous, but separate car crashes.

The scriptural parallels in A Serious Man are clear. The piled-on punishments of Larry mirror those of Job, but without the eventual denouement of God's praise and remuneration. His introduction to seductive neighbor Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker) echoes King David's meet-creepy eyeballing of Bathsheba's nude wash time, but without the prefigured consummation.

It's as though the Coen brothers have truncated these testaments, removing--or perhaps replacing--the hand of God in order to demonstrate the unlikelihood of divine answer and intervention. Larry's most oft-repeated line, "I haven't done anything," is accurate and universal. Tragedy admits no sense of justice, hitting upon the deserving and blameless alike.

It's a simple message, but conveyed with frequently hilarious, occasionally overbearing delivery. Larry is such a schmuck, a nebbish, a less-clever Woody Allen characterization whose battalion of woes are undeserved, but nonetheless entertaining. Stuhlbarg is a marvelous discovery, finding the right pitch between pathos and panic, while the supporting cast, particularly the overly avuncular Melamed and whiny dope-fiend Wolff, are excellent.

As expected, the production on A Serious Man is first-class. Cinematographer Roger Deakins returns after a Burn After Reading (2008) hiatus, and his slow-pulls and tracking shots mimic the measured moviemaking of the era. With a lovely score by frequent contributor Carter Burwell and a strong screenplay and direction, Joel and Ethan Coen make a rebound from a couple recent missteps—No Country for Old Men notwithstanding—back to what they do best: dramatic content tinged with dark comedy.