The fame and fortune generated by their Oscar-winning 2007 film No Country For Old Men has allowed filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen a level of creative freedom most artists only fantasize about. They've used this freedom well, which is to say that their most recent work is more personal and stubbornly eccentric than the big hipster hits of their past. And it helps that these two puzzling, vaguely comic, largely misanthropic post-Country spitballs — 2008's underrated Burn After Reading and this year's A Serious Man — are richer and more emotionally resonant than their previous genre pastiches.
A Serious Man's prelude is designed to alienate timid viewers immediately. After flashing a cryptic title card — "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you" — the film begins with an eerie, ambiguous dramatization of a Yiddish ghost story that may or may not have anything to do with the rest of the film, which is set 100 years later (give or take a few decades) in suburban Minneapolis. It's now the 1960s, and Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a tenure-track physics professor, is bewildered by a malignant strain of disasters, which may or may not have anything to do with the way he lives his life. Larry is a Jew whose crisis of faith coincides with the adventures of his pot-smoking son Danny, a lost soul whose commitment to acid rock and marijuana is far greater than his commitment to studying the Torah.
Now stop for a moment and see if you can think of any other mainstream Hollywood movie ever where the main characters are middle-class Midwestern Jews resentful of goyim and obsessed with discovering whether or not God (respectfully called "Hashem" by all the characters in the film) has a discernible plan for them. But if the novelty of the milieu is striking, the cultural sensitivity behind the Coen brothers' usual parade of grotesques feels like a spiritual awakening.
This vaguely autobiographical work (the Coens grew up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a Minneapolis suburb) also serves as a creation myth for the Coens' blackly comic world. A Serious Man offers some of their usual caricature and mockery — especially in a subplot involving a Korean student who's trying to blackmail Larry into a passing grade — but it also offers rare warmth and good-natured humor, as when an ancient rabbi quotes Jefferson Airplane back to Gopnik's stoned son on the day of his bar mitzvah. And when Arthur (Richard Kind), Larry's hapless, possibly insane brother, wails, "Hashem hasn't given me shit!" the ensuing fraternal embrace near a drained swimming pool is one of the most tender moments in the Coens' canon.
The visionary moment in the film is not found in the words of the rabbis, the charms of the foxy "cougar" next door, the escape offered in dreams, or the usual fancy camerawork and cooler-than-you attitude that characterized the Coens' early successes. It occurs when Larry climbs onto his roof to fix his TV antenna so that F Troop comes in clearer. He's given a few moments of grace up there, the king of a world he still finds undeniably foreign.