Physics professor Larry Gopnik is distraught. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for older blowhard Sy Adelman (Fred Melamed). He's up for tenure, but someone is sending anonymous poison-pen letters to the committee that decides his fate. His eccentric schlub brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is living on his couch, his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) is eternally exasperated as only teenage girls can be, and his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) puts off prepping for his bar mitzvah by smoking pot. A failing student (David Kang) is alternately trying to bribe him and threatening to sue him. Finally, a family friend (Katherine Borowitz) reminds Larry that, as Jews, they are lucky enough to be able to turn to "the well of tradition" for solace.
Larry does try to turn to that well, seeking out meetings with three rabbis in a search for the answers to his Job-like predicament, but A Serious Man is no more about Jewishness, per se, than O Brother, Where Art Thou? was about The Odyssey or Fargo was a true story. Serious is set in suburban Minnesota in 1967, which happens to be where writers/directors Joel and Ethan Coen grew up Jewish, about the time they would have been close to Danny's age, and it does feel more personal, more lived-in, than many of their onscreen clockwork universes. But as in O Brother, the setting mainly serves as a frame for the Coens to do their Coen thing, in this case so well.
In many ways, Larry is the Coens' reprise of the idea behind The Man Who Wasn't There. Michael Stuhlbarg, a serious stage actor with only a handful of screen appearances, embodies Larry as an intellectual boy-man who pulls his pants up too high and fairly trembles with passive timidity. When Judith tells him she wants a divorce, his first reaction is "But I haven't done anything," followed by a child-like whimper of "Where am I going to sleep?" He lets the oleaginously mensch-y Sy back him into a corner and force him into a consoling hug before suggesting that, he, Larry, move out, which he does. His life sucks, in part because he lets it.
But there's a kind and hopeful air to Stuhlbarg's brilliantly modulated Larry: Bad things happen, but he is a good person, or at least he tries to be—a serious man. The fact that Larry doesn't seem to deserve much of what's happening to him grounds the absurdity of what does.
From the folk-tale-esque pre-credit sequence to a final shot that's sure to annoy those annoyed by the way No Country for Old Men ended, Serious is a virtuoso display of Coen-style dark comedy. Indeed, you can spot their self-references. Listen for the way the Coens turn Stuhlbarg repeatedly saying "Santana's Abraxas" into a spot of verbal music, a la The Big Lebowski. Once Larry moves into a cheap motel with the ever-more-troubled Arthur, the story begins to take on a touch of the grim hallucinatory madness of Barton Fink. Danny's tubby teenage pot dealer starts chasing him down the street in a shot that echoes a drug-dealer's dog in pursuit in No Country. Fargo's harassing Asian man Steve Park shows up playing a harassing Asian man. Then, there are the tic-like repeated motifs: Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love," ears (especially hairy ones), pointless arguments. And the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, last trotted out in Wasn't There, pops up, too. The Coens are clearly in their discomfort zone.
Maybe it's the fact that the Coens know this particular world so well that makes these worn-in tropes feel fresh here; the laughs they get from lingering shots of sour old men's faces alone bespeak their ease. But for all of the practiced deadpan gags—a rabbi's secretary with Jim Jarmusch's voice, a teen who curses to a self-conscious extreme, the walking deadpan gag that is sexy neighbor Mrs. Samsky (a wolf-eyed Amy Landecker)—it's the underlying joke that's the richest and makes Serious the brothers' best comedy since Lebowski. Despite the rabbis (Simon Helberg, Alan Mandell, and George Wyner) Larry sees, God's plan remains inscrutable. Even as a man of science, he acknowledges to a student that science-classroom staple Schroedinger's cat is a "fable" that even he doesn't quite understand. The answer is that there are no answers. "Accept the mystery," one character urges. Like we have any choice.