"If not now, when?" the Jewish sage Hillel famously asked, and with "A Serious Man" the Coen brothers have answered.
Writer-directors Joel and Ethan have seized the opportunity afforded by the Oscar-winning success of "No Country for Old Men," to make their most personal, most intensely Jewish film, a pitch-perfect comedy of despair that, against some odds, turns out to be one of their most universal as well.
Set in a very specific time and place -- the Jewish community in suburban Minneapolis circa 1967 -- that closely echoes the Coens' own background, "A Serious Man" is a memory piece re-imagined through the darkest possible lens.
Yet the more the man of the title suffers the torments of Job, the more he tries to deal with the unknowability of the usual willfully absurd and decidedly hostile Coen universe, the more we're encouraged to wonder if this isn't just the tiniest bit funny. And the more real the pain becomes, the more, in a quintessentially Jewish way, laughter becomes our only serious option.
The serious man in question is Larry Gopnik (Tony-nominated actor Michael Stuhlbarg), a university professor who's up for tenure in physics. Married with two children and the standard suburban house, he's always tried to live up to expectations, tried to be the best person he can, so he's totally unprepared when every aspect of his life begins to collapse in a slow-motion riot.
First, his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), tells him out of the blue that she's leaving the marriage for, of all people, the whale-like Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed), an acquaintance as unctuous as he is pompous. Which is very.
At the university, a persistent South Korean student (David Kang) is trying every method, moral and otherwise, to improve his grade. The chairman of the tenure committee is getting anonymous letters assailing Gopnik's alleged moral turpitude. And the man himself keeps getting dunning phone calls from a record club he's never heard of.
Meanwhile, Gopnik's children, the marijuana-smoking, Jefferson-Airplane-listening, about-to-be-bar-mitzvahed Danny (Aaron Wolff) and his frantic sister, Sarah (Jessica McManus), are too self-involved to be much help. And his visiting brother, Arthur (a fearless Richard Kind), spends much of his time draining a sebaceous cyst on his neck and is even more of a wreck than Larry is.
Outside the house, things in Gopnik's bleak prairie subdivision are not an improvement. His possibly anti-Semitic neighbor (Peter Breitmayer) is encroaching on his property, and the willingness of the comely Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker) to sunbathe in the nude is more disorienting than anything else. It gets so bad that Gopnik's only dubious relaxation is listening to bass Sidor Belarsky's ultra-lugubrious rendition of a Yiddish song called "The Miller's Tears."
As his woes increase biblically, Gopnik tries with increasing desperation to find out why this is happening to him. He consults a divorce attorney (Adam Arkin) and not one but three rabbis, and he hears a fantastical story about a Hebrew cry for help engraved on a goy's teeth, only to come to fear that what he guessed all along might be the case: It's not always easy to find out what God is trying to tell us.
On one level -- actually, on many levels -- "A Serious Man" is not exactly a happy story, but one of the things that makes it as involving as it is is the formidible filmmaking skill the Coens have honed in more than 25 years of collaboration.
Doing their own editing (under the longtime pseudonym Roderick Jaynes) and working with such regulars as cinematographer Roger Deakins, costume designer Mary Zophres, composer Carter Burwell, co-casting director Ellen Chenoweth and production designer Jess Gonchor, the Coens have so exactly made the film they envisioned that it is hard not to be drawn in. Working largely with unfamiliar actors, their trademark blurring of the line between serious and comic has never been as artfully done as it is here.
More than that, his mountain of woes notwithstanding, Larry Gopnik just might be the most out-and-out normal person ever to be put at the center of a Coen brothers film, and his everyman status helps explain one of the film's apparent paradoxes: its ability to be both intensely Jewish and speak to everyone.
On the one hand, "A Serious Man" is rife with specific Jewish references, like the great cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. It starts with a quote from Rashi and a Yiddish-language parable set in Eastern Europe starring the veteran Fyvush Finkel as someone who may or may not be a dybbuk and ends with the classic credit line, "No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture."
Yet it's impossible to watch Larry Gopnik's travails without feeling that they will speak to everyone who's been battered and blindsided by life's tormenting crises and wonders why. By being so site-specific, the Coens have broadened their reach and expanded their touch.
"I've tried to be a serious man. I've tried to do right," Gopnik laments more than once. Haven't we all, this unexpected film, at once comic and haunting, asks. Haven't we all?
'A Serious Man'
MPAA rating: R for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: At the the ArcLight Hollywood and the Landmark in West L.A.