Of the recent Coen brothers flicks I believe A Serious Man is the one I liked the best. It's black comedy that does a fine job being both dark and truly funny - a very hard line to walk in my experience. While the New Yorker review compared the experience to something fairly painful I actually quite enjoyed it. Admittedly, some of the reasons may not translate to the broader readership. OK - given the limited scope of my readership that might not be true.
While I do disagree with the New Yorker on this one they're still on my positive side for perfectly nailing the description of the monsters in Where the Wild Things Are as all sounding like "peevish adults elbowing one another out of the way at the smoked-fish counter at Zabar's." That's exactly the phrase I wish I was good enough to have written in my notes on the film.
I'll try to do my best to recount the story of the film and what I liked about it. But truth be told I'm catching up from Japan fighting a bit of jet lag and memory degraded by having seen it a week ago. Not to mention my movie senses being degraded seriously by "inflight entertainment." Is The Taking of Pelham 123 better on the big screen? More importantly does one not notice that Denzel and Travolta are rehashing roles they've done a dozen times before (and probably better in Broken Arrow)? Seriously - I'm curious about that. Sorry - back to the film at hand.
It's been written that A Serious Man is the Coen brother's retelling of the Book of Job - wherein a man's faith is constantly challenged so the ones pulling the strings can see how far is too far. Sort of a biblical version of the Saw franchise now that I think about it. Or maybe it has nothing to do with that tale and it's simply that the main character's family is cursed to suffer through the generations based on the film's prologue filmed (I believe) entirely in Yiddish. Though in this case it's not entirely clear to me whether Larry Gopnick (the main character played by Michael Stuhlbarg) has a literal faith in Hashem to lose or just believes going in that the universe should be a trifle more fair than what he's been experiencing lately. But like a lot of descriptions of films by the Coens it's probably not a great idea to read too much into the "based on ____" descriptions thrown around by them.
Either way - when we meet Larry it's clear that he's a man beset by adversity from all directions. Living in the midwest in 1967 he's a physics professor up for tenure. In the course of a very short span we learn that his wife is leaving him for another member of their congregation (who's viewed by many as a Tzadik but is really quite the schmuck), he may not get tenure, his brother seems to have permanently moved in and is suffering from either schizophrenia or homosexuality, or both. Oh yeah, and his stoner son who's about to celebrate his bar mitzah won't stop hounding him to fix the antenna on their roof so he can watch F-Troop. It'd be enough to drive a man to drink (even without his Columbia Record Club stalker) - but Larry tries to do the right thing and persevere. First through sheer effort and then by seeking the help of the rabbis who lead his temple. Of course no one really has answers for him - but much of the "fun" is watching the learned among him attempt to offer guidance or make sense out of his dilemmas. I particularly enjoyed each of his (and other characters) interactions with the rabbis. With a beautiful close on that theme towards the end that seems to suggest that true knowledge comes with accepting the futility of thinking you've got the universe figured out - or listening to more Jefferson Airplane.
I enjoyed watching the visual aspects of this film which are mostly done in the hyper-sharp style that the Coen brothers are generally known for. My Hebrew school experience took place somewhat later than the era depicted in the film - but what's onscreen here is so similar to mine experientially that it gave me flashbacks. Particularly the droning presentation and the room full of kids that clearly didn't give a (expletive deleted). And the first person perspective of his son in front of the congregation was eerily similar to how I perceived that event in my life. Without the chemical support he was using in the film.
Even as Larry is hit with one obstacle and setback after another he remains a generally likable character. Not raging against the situations but more seeming dumbfounded and wanting to understand why. You (or at least I) want him to get those answers, even though watching it's clear that's not meant to be. There's a theme throughout that the universe is uncertain and any belief that we have any control is a farce. It's not exactly subtle (supported by both the religious and the physics based world views of the film) - but for me it didn't take away from my pleasure in watching the characters try to understand the circumstances they found themselves in and the dialog that resulted. Some of it found where you'd least expect it. By far the best line in the film comes in the middle of a rapid fire argument between Larry and the father of a Korean student who tried to bribe him. Unclear by the end as to whether he's still being offered the bribe or is now being extorted by them for their having offered the bribe in the first place the father cuts off all further discussion with the line "just accept the mystery...." I encourage you to go, see the film and do just that.
Or maybe I missed the point entirely - either way I found the film interesting to watch, funny at times and at least mildly thought provoking. For me that's worth the price of admission anyway. :-)
Lastly, if you've got a Jew handy be sure to bring 'em with you. You may need a few explanations afterwards. I'm not saying goyim won't get this film - but there's perhaps another dimension of humor to it that members of the tribe (even strictly cultural ones such as myself) will enjoy differently. If you don't have your own just chat one up after the show. We'll be the ones laughing when no one else is (especially every time there's a reference to his wife wanting a "get" - for some reason that cracked me up every time).