The film begins with a prologue, where a Jewish couple, some time in the late 18th/early 20th century are presented with a conundrum. A rabbi has appeared at their door after an invitation from the husband. However, the wife has heard that this rabbi died three years before and believes what is in their home is a dybbuk, a sort of Jewish demon. The prologue is presented in a way that leaves both the possibility of the rabbi being who he claims and being the dybbuk equally valid. Thus, the film links itself to the paradox of Schroedinger’s Cat.
Set in 1967, the plot focuses on college mathematics professor Larry Gopnik. Larry is a modern day Job, having his wife ask for a divorce, her new lover passive-aggressively maneuvering his way into the home, two teenage children who could care less about him, a student bribing for a higher grade, and general disdain from all those around him.
For this latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, the duo have departed from casting big name actors and have opted for a melange of recognizable character actors and stage performers. The film is highly steeped in Jewish culture and likely contains many autobiographical elements. It is highly impressive that the same minds behind No Country For Old Men and The Big Lebowski are able to deftly move between almost genre of film and produce work of superb quality. A Serious Man is no exception, despite its drastic casting shifts.
There is a lot of pay close attention to in this film, and the way the story ends is inevitably going to frustrate those viewers who like loose ends tied up. A key piece to getting the most out of the film is keep many of the stories told, including the prologue in mind. It’s mentioned in the film, that in Judaism stories and folktales are a crucial part of understanding the challenges placed before a person. There are many stories told in this film and all of them have themes and ideas that play out in the climax of the film.
I found A Serious Man to be one of the most intellectually rewarding of the Coens’ work, which says a lot when you look at the quality of their career. It’s in their continuing tradition of going completely against the grain and expectations of their audience, and its concepts and questions will linger with you for days and weeks to follow.