Offbeat even for a Coen Brothers movie, A Serious Man opens in a Jewish village in 19th century Poland, with a scene in subtitled Yiddish that has a never-explained connection to the rest of the story, set in 1967 Minneapolis and centering on Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a nerdy physics professor whose finds his quiet life suddenly falling apart: his wife wants to leave him for another man, he is faced with possible blackmail at school, his mentally ill brother is staying with him indefinitely, and his kids are going through the ugly pains of adolescence. What follows is a typical Coen Brothers exercise in sadism, as we watch things get worse and worse for poor floundering Larry.
It took me a while to figure out just what this film is about, and I'm still not totally sure, but I'm going to venture a guess that - since a compelling narrative is somewhat absent - this is a character piece, a story of a man ensconced in scientific theory and academia who unsuccessfully tries to seek out rational answers for the irrationalities in his life. (It's not coincidental that the film takes place at the beginning of the so-called "summer of love", when middle-aged, middle-class America would soon be confronted by all the social revolutions of the moment.) Larry's quest leads him to the comically vague advice of various rabbis, and here I should point out that A Serious Man is steeped in Judaica. Although not Jewish myself, I didn't find the references too difficult to follow. Those who have never been exposed to Jewish culture, however, may be lost. That the Coens are Jewish guys who grew up in suburban Minneapolis in the late '60s suggests that they are telling a story very close to their hearts and are replicating the world of their youth, warts and all.
But is the film satisfying? Well... We are now in the fuzzy intellectual territory of the Coens' less accessible films, such as Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn't There, only even more so, for there are no recognizable stars here and the milieu depicted is esoteric to say the least. The humor is bone dry and the film ends with an abruptness typical of Coen Brothers fare. Look closely and you will find other recurring themes from their work, in particular the odyssey of the naive professional forced to come to terms with the depths of corruption, selfishness, and depravity in the world around him - a theme explored in the two previously mentioned films, as well as in Fargo and No Country for Old Men.
I can't say that I loved A Serious Man, but I was engaged by the film, and it gave me much to think about afterward. Just be aware that this is decidedly not "Coen Brothers Lite".