Our reigning smart-aleck directors, the Coen brothers, try to erase the thick line between wiseguys and wise men in "A Serious Man," a movie filled with adults stumbling in their search for truth and adolescents who can't see beyond the smoking joints in front of them. But all the Coens come up with is a movie about bad things happening to limited people.
It's set in suburban Minneapolis in the late 1960s or early 1970s, when the ticky-tacky houses of the baby boom are beginning to show some wear and tear. In this claustrophobic pocket of the Midwest, the counterculture is a bag of marijuana in a boy's pocket and a whiff of Jefferson Airplane coming in over his transistor radio.
The boy is Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff), whose prime pastimes are smoking pot and watching "F Troop." But the main character is Danny's father, Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor who has lived according to equations of what it means to be a responsible husband, parent and teacher. His belief system breaks down when his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), announces she wants to leave him for another man - the loathsome, moralistically unctuous and always dead-certain Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), referred to by a rabbi and by Sy himself as "a serious man."
The movie raises more questions about the Coens' storytelling depth and competence than it does about suffering and faith. Did Larry notice his wife's growing discontent? Did he ever realize that his son's main concern is the position of the TV antenna, just as a nose job is the overriding goal of his daughter (Jessica McManus)? And if he didn't recognize any of these things - or if he went into denial or ignored them - what does this say about his character, no matter how earnest or devout? Most important, why does he put so much emphasis on the advice of rabbis? It's as if he had never connected to God before all this happened to him, and now he wants the rabbis to function as mediums. And, of course, in this movie, they're not. They're campy counselors.
"A Serious Man" has the cramped intensity of a middle-period Ingmar Bergman movie remade by a couple of secular Jewish comedians. The scenes are clipped and mordant. The Coens link them with visual echoes (Danny's radio earphone, a doctor inspecting Larry's ears) or close them like coffin lids, with the next scene coming up with white titles on black backgrounds. Larry is supposed to be like Job. But he mostly embodies repression. When he dreams of Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker), the pot-smoking nude sunbather next door, he's like a Moses of the id, pleading to his own superego, "Let my libido go!"
The black comedy in "A Serious Man" is meant to emerge from a spiraling run of bad luck. The Coens hope to jolt, not tickle, our funny bones with how much worse one man's already sorry existence can get. Again and again, Larry seems to hit rock bottom, then crashes through it. The Coens saddle Larry with a socially maladjusted brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), who is scribbling nonsense math theories in a notebook when he isn't draining the sebaceous cyst in his neck (and hogging the bathroom). And a failing Korean student who has slipped the professor a bribe. And a rugged gentile neighbor who doesn't respect property lines and dislikes Koreans even more than he does bookish Jews.
This piling-on, no-way-out-but-down narrative strategy has worked for brilliant thriller-makers like Brian De Palma in "Carrie" and "Blow-Out" or inspired provocateurs like Luis Bunuel. It even worked for the Coens when they played Cormac McCarthy straight in "No Country for Old Men."
But the Coens don't provide thrills, revelation, cathartic laughter or tears in "A Serious Man." They keep their filmmaking in the range of pinpoint realism. The thick air of boredom in a Hebrew class where everything is learned by rote, the spurious, heavy dignity of a lawyer's or a doctor's office, the curdled warmth of a Jewish community where everyone knows each other's business - including the head of the committee that will judge Larry's bid for tenure - the Coens have all this down pat. Too pat.
As co-directors and co-writers they must push each other to over-perfect their work, so that even the most lifelike moments have the spontaneity pressed right out of them. What's amazing about "A Serious Man" is how impersonal it seems for such a personal movie. The self-conscious visual style and pacing make each tic of character or verbal glitch stand out. The tinker-toy storytelling style reduces the scenes to barely fleshed-out skits, then merges them with all the fluidity of Lego blocks. "A Serious Man" is a sociologically exact depiction of a certain kind of observant Jewish home in the mid-1960s, but it doesn't give you enough data even for a decent case study.