You should pardon the cliché, but you don't have to be Jewish to like the new Coen brothers film. Admittedly, Jewish viewers may get more out of A Serious Man, but then so might anyone who grew up in a suburb in the Midwest in the 1960s.
Which is to say, you might appreciate A Serious Man best if you happen to be Ethan or Joel Coen: as with all the brothers' films, there's a lurking suspicion that everything we see is a private joke between this sardonically knowing pair. But that doesn't matter. Admirers of the Coens – including those who have lapsed, like myself – will rejoice in their best film for a long while, and one of their most irreducibly oddball.
It's also their most personal film, and their most Jewish. It even starts with a prologue in subtitled Yiddish: an episode set in 19th-century Poland, in which a couple wonder whether a visitor is actually a revenant, a dybbuk. An anecdote in the vein of Yiddish storytellers Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholom Aleichem, this blackly comic prelude has little to do with what follows, except to introduce a key theme, the deep-seated (and hardly unreasonable) conviction running through Jewish tradition – that whatever you do, you can't escape trouble, or tsoress.
Cut to the Midwest in the late 1960s and maths professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), on whose shoulders the tsoress of the world descends. He has an aggrieved student complaining about his grade; his wife Judith is leaving him for the smooth-talking, supposedly more weighty Sy Ableman; and his troubled brother Arthur (Richard Kind) has moved in, bringing his troublesome sebaceous cyst and his own impenetrable quasi-kabbalistic system of thought – "a probability map of the universe", yet.
As tribulations rain on Larry, this latter-day Job attempts to understand why God seems to have it in for him. He hopes rabbis will have the answer, but of the three he consults, the first is a callow time-server, while the next tells Larry the bizarre parable of a dentist who finds a divine message carved in a patient's teeth. The meaning of this delirious digression? Go figure: "We can't know anything," shrugs the rabbi.
As for the third rabbi, this Methuselah-like sage is too busy to see anyone. It's as if the Almighty Himself has turned Larry away, and the moment is oddly reminiscent of the frustrated quest for knowledge in Kafka's parable "Before the Law". And we know how Kafka-like the Coens can be.
Drawing on the Coens' own Minnesota background, A Serious Man is an acidic but fond memoir of the late 1960s. It keenly maps the oddity and blandness of that moment in American suburbia: from the liberated neighbour (Amy Landecker) who tempts Larry with joints and smouldering looks, to the records that Larry's son Danny (Aaron Wolf) has been ordering secretly. (There's a routine involving Santana's Abraxas album that's as culturally spot-on as the José Feliciano gag in Fargo.)
A broad cartoon of American Jewishness, the film is particularly acute on the peculiarities of an all-Jewish world, as if this Midwestern suburb were not so far removed from the Polish shtetl of the prologue. Goyim – Gentiles – barely exist except as a source of alien anxiety, like Larry's scowling redneck neighbour.
I've heard it suggested that if the Coens weren't Jewish, all this might resemble anti-Semitic caricature. But A Serious Man is in the Jewish tradition of self-lampooning, and the Coens are surely putting themselves in the position of Danny and the other adolescents in his Hebrew class, driven to identify with modern secular America while under the fierce surveillance of elders who seem (to quote the matriarch in Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock) to have "walked here all the way from Minsk".
Certainly the Coens favour grotesques; that's true of all their films. But they also cast actors – almost entirely unfamiliar – who brilliantly embody specific Jewish suburban types: George Wyner's charismatic, voluble rabbi; Sari Lennick as Judith, a woman with the angriest eyes I've ever seen; and Fred Melamed's aggressively gentle Sy, communicating as much with his hipster casualwear as he does with his disarmingly soft tones. And Michael Stuhlbarg is superb as Larry, at once intellectual seeker and eternal naïf, eyebrows perpetually raised in nervous apprehension.
A Serious Man sees the Coens getting to grips with their roots in a way that may be specifically American but that will surely resonate with Jewish viewers anywhere. (The bar mitzvah scene, viewed through Danny's eyes, certainly brought me a Proustian surge of long-forgotten terror.)
For all the farce, A Serious Man also comes over quite seriously as a theological investigation. Many of the Coens' films are about characters trying to figure out the mysterious ways of God – at least, of distant authority figures, or destiny, or the System. This story revolves around a contradiction in Jewish thought: it's good to ask questions, but you do so at your peril. ("Why does He make us feel like questioning, if He's not going to give us the answers?" Larry agonises.) Perhaps both Gopnik brothers have transgressed by seeking universal truths, Arthur with his deranged theory of everything, Larry with his study of "the Uncertainty Principle – it proves we can't ever really know what's going on". (For this we need a Principle?)
With its fabulously abrupt ending, this is the Coens' most enigmatic film since Barton Fink. It's also one of their richest and most exuberant, and, for the first time in a while, more compassionate than sourly mocking. Trust those Coens to find filmic joy in tsoress.