The Jew Who Wasn't There...
Big questions about faith, God, and mortality surround small people and the even smaller vagaries of fate and circumstance in the work of the Coen Brothers. However, all those big questions are posed not as religious or philosophical queries but more as punchlines in the great cosmic joke of life. Old Testament references are sown throughout their work, be it the Song of Solomon in Miller's Crossing, Genesis and The Book of Daniel in Barton Fink, and probably the whole thing somewhere in The Big Lebowski. Yet, if there is a common denominator to the Coens' entire body of work it is the utter absence of any controlling order, morality or meaning in the universe, so why then would God figure so largely in their films? I think the answer lies in the fact that the God of the Old Testament is their favorite fictional character. They relate to him, because who other than those sarcastic tricksters could get one of their favorite creations to try and butcher his own kid, or inflict any number of other cruelties for a bit of a laugh? So, it is fitting that their latest would be a take on the Book of Job, a biblical shaggy-dog story already in The Brothers mold. Much like the God of Abraham, the Coens know that there is nothing funner than to create a universe, fill it with interesting characters, beset them with all manner of major and minor calamities and disasters and then listen to the cries of "Why? Why? Why?" roll in, from both your creations and their audience.
A Serious Man is maybe the Coens most personal film to date and as Todd McCarthy of Variety points out, the kind of the movie you can only make after winning a few Oscars. Who else could do a black comedy about Judaism set in the suburban Minnesota of the late 1960s? The film opens with something of a Yiddish ghost story set in the "old country" where an encounter with what may or may not be a dybbuk, (a cameo by Fyvush Finkel), sets in motion what may or may not be a curse which plays itself out through the generations all the way to 1967 and our lead nebbish, physics professor Larry Gopnik, played with hilarious deadpan by Michael Stuhlbarg, whose life goes to complete shit in the weeks leading up to his son's Bar Mitzvah as circumstances conspire to test his faith. His tenure is threatened by anonymous letters denigrating him, a Korean student tries to bribe him for a passing grade, he has unwittingly joined the Columbia Records Club, his possibly, maybe anti-Semitic neighbor is encroaching into his lawn, his daughter is stealing from his wallet, his son is in turn stealing from his sister to buy a lid of pot, his semi-insane brother (Richard Kind) is crashing on his couch and perpetually hogging the bathroom, and to top it off his wife is leaving him for a smarmy, over-touchy widower.
It's enough to make even the most devout confront the lyrics to the Jefferson Airplane song that bookends and forms something of a coda to the film. Indeed, what Larry thought to be the truth was lies, and what's more, all the joy within him dies. In other words, in typical Coen fashion, these events snowball into a bizarre series of mishaps, all of which our lead character has absolutely no control over, save for mounting financial obligation. Larry seeks solace in the Jewish tradition and attempts to find meaning for his suffering in the counsel of a series of Rabbis. Why would Hashem give us all of these questions but none of the answers? And what good is religion if its only answer is that it's not our place to ask? Of course, Larry gets no satisfaction from consulting the rabbis and maybe more surprisingly, gets no answers from smoking weed with a foxy neighbor given to nude sunbathing. Larry's search for meaning and reason for his numerous tribulations stands in contrast to his job as a physics professor, where in front of a giant blackboard filled with mathematical equations, he tries to explain things like Schrodinger's Cat -- and similar to Tony Shalhoub's monologue in The Man Who Wasn't There -- the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle. All things which point to the essentially random nature of the universe, be it in quantum mechanics or the trivialities of everyday life, in which these principles find their expression. For Larry, in physics as with Judaism, the only true meaning to be found is in uncertainty.
Because A Serious Man, takes place in the Coen universe, it is given to demonstrations of not so much the banality of evil or suffering, but rather their absurdity. And similar to the one we inhabit when we leave the theater, the Coen universe is so meticulously crafted that the absence of an inherent order seems almost impossible. How could something of such exquisite function arise from something so absurd and meaningless? As such, we are left to pour over every detail and scene with an eye for an ever elusive tidbit or revelation that will bring the grand narrative into sharp focus. Of course, with the Coens and God we see everything through that glass darkly and the joke is always on us...and God doesn't even have Roger Deakins as his cinematographer.
Bonus -- Stay seated for the entire credits and you'll get an Easter Egg assuring you, "No Jews were harmed in the making of this film."