When Archibald MacLeish offered a modernized version of the Book of Job in his 1958 play “J.B.,” he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. If there’s any fairness in life—about which the story of Job raises question, of course—Joel and Ethan Coen will receive even greater accolades for their version, the piercingly funny, wrenchingly sad and always brilliant “A Serious Man” (a title that can be taken as a translation of the Hebrew that describes Job at the very beginning of the Old Testament book.)
The suffering figure here is Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a Minnesota college in the mid-sixties (one of the details that makes the time specific is the constant mention of “F Troop,” which ran from 1965 to 1967). At work, teaching among other things Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, he’s confronted by an inscrutable Korean student (David Kang) who’s trying to bribe him for a passing grade—supported, we later learn, by his father. He’s also facing a tenure decision by his department.
And at home things are worse. His sullen neighbor is inching toward trespassing on his property with a new boat shed. His brother Arthur (Richard Kind), a troubled soul with a penchant for gambling that gets him in trouble with the law, is staying with the family—indefinitely, it seems. His kids pose other difficulties. Daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) is constantly going out, and when home squabbling with younger brother Danny (Aaron Wolff), who’s preparing for his bar mitzvah, but is also pestering his dad about their lousy television reception. (He’s also started using weed, a habit that’s put him in debt to a burly classmate who’s his connection at Hebrew School, and has signed his father up in the Columbia Record Club, which occasions dunning phone calls from their representatives.) Worst of all, though, his hard-nosed wife Judith (Sari Lennick) stuns Larry with the news that she wants a divorce so she can marry roly-poly widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who commiserates with him with words of phony sympathy while encouraging him to move out of his own house to a motel.
It’s no surprise that his burgeoning problems lead Larry to lawyers—one (Adam Arkin) to handle his divorce, another (Michael Lerner) to deal with his looming property dispute. But he seeks more fundamental help from his rabbi—or more precisely, rabbis: young Scott (Simon Helberg) and his elder Machtner (George Wyner). But neither offers him any useful advice, the former talking blissfully about the synagogue parking lot and the latter offering an intriguing but apparently pointless anecdote about a dentist who discovered a strange message in a patient’s teeth. (These set-pieces act as complements to a prologue set in a Polish shtetl, in which a couple is visited by a guest who might be a dybbuk, or ghost.) So he tries to get in to see the reclusive senior rabbi Marshak, a reputed font of wisdom who now spends his days in solitary meditation. He fails, though Danny gets to see the old man after his bar mitzvah (a sequence rendered exquisitely from the terrified boy’s perspective), and profits from it, though not in ways Larry would have expected—or appreciated.
The three rabbis are, of course, the stand-in for the three men who give Job advice, and theirs is equally unhelpful, though a good deal more amusing. And the lawyers are no better. What “A Serious Man” tells us in answer to the old question about bad things happening to good people is the oldest answer of all—it’s inexplicable, and if there is a higher justice operative in the universe, how its scales balance is beyond our understanding. Whether you take that as a denial of, or at least skepticism about, divine governance or as an admission that the subject is an unfathomable mystery is up to you. What’s clear is that the film gives a twist to the biblical story at the close, a change that makes you wonder whether there is a connection between giving in to temptation, or even considering doing so, and the complete catastrophe that can take many forms.
What’s also inarguable is the dexterity with which the Coens construct their story and the customary visual stylishness with which they tell it. Even at its quirkiest and most deliberately obscure (as in the prologue), the picture is shot with an unerring eye by the masterful Roger Deakins and edited with equal precision by the brothers’ pseudonymous Roderick Jaynes. Jess Gonchor’s production design, Deborah Jensen’s art direction, Nancy Haigh’s set decoration and Mary Zophres’ costumes together fashion a dreamlike but precise realization of the suburban Minneapolis of the Coens’ own youth, and Carter Burwell’s score adds a deliciously ominous undercurrent.
As to the performances, the large cast are all attuned to the writer-directors’ unique, and very personal vision. But it would be a mistake not to single out Stuhlbarg, who’s ever so reminiscent of the late Larry Blyden and exhibits the same mixture of intensity and weakness, and Wolff, whose open-faced blandness conveys exactly the right nebbish quality. Elsewhere the picture is filled with indelible turns, many of only cameo length, like Melamed’s insufferably smug other man, Helberg’s eager young rabbi, Mandell’s wizened one, and Fyvush Finkel’s genial dybbuk.
Giddy, profound and poignant all at once, “A Serious Man” is a small but genuine masterwork from a team that’s already given us plenty of them.