Joel and Ethan Coen have frequently explored classic movie genres, usually through the prism of a particular era. The Big Lebowski is a wise-ass riff on detective stories, but it’s also an examination of the cultural wasteland of the early ’90s. The Man Who Wasn’t There is a noir about the noir era; O Brother Where Art Thou is a musical about the ’30s, and so on. The brothers’ latest, A Serious Man, finds them off in their own headspace more than usual, making another era-pastiche—for the late ’60s, this time—mixed with their version of profound philosophical inquiry. But A Serious Man isn’t bound to any particular genre. It begins with a fantastical anecdote from the old country, but if A Serious Man is meant to be the Coen brothers’ version of a parable, it’s one with a purposefully muddled message.
Reportedly based on the brothers’ own Jewish suburban upbringing, A Serious Man follows a few weeks in the life of upstanding family man Michael Stuhlbarg, whose troubles are mounting so quickly that they’re hard to track. His wife wants a divorce, his tenure application is tenuous, his son’s a pothead, his brother’s a deadbeat, and on and on and on. But there’s some good in Stuhlbarg’s life too. His son’s preparing for his bar mitzvah, and his foxy next-door neighbor has gotten into the habit of sunbathing naked. The problem is that everything happening to Stuhlbarg, good and bad, either ends up costing him money or putting his mortal soul at risk. And when he turns to God for answers, the signals are as fuzzy as the reception on his TV.
A Serious Man is wholly a Coen brothers movie, in that it’s full of exaggerated characters and comic cruelty, anchored to a way of looking at the world that seems to posit a fundamental absence of meaning. And yet there’s something sweet and even a little heartening about the movie, too. Maybe it’s that the lead character is arguably the most sympathetic Coens protagonist since Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona. Maybe it’s all the rich detail of middle-class Jewish life coexisting with heartland Americana. Or maybe it’s that even if they honestly believe there’s no point, the Coens are still intellectually curious enough to weigh the deeper implications of a Jefferson Airplane song, or the collections department of the Columbia Record Club. In keeping with the “happily doomed” mood of the ’60s, the Coens portray every blessing as a potential curse, then insist, with only a tiny wink, that we “embrace the mystery.”