NOT TO BE ALL DEPRESSING about it, but life is shitty, and we're all going to die.
Such is the depressing-as-fuck truth we're reminded of in A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers' latest. It's 1967, and nervous, beleaguered physics professor Larry Gopnik (an excellent Michael Stuhlbarg) is on a precipice, holding on for dear life. As his son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), prepares for his bar mitzvah, Larry's wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), demands a divorce. Judith isn't exactly the patient type; she's already started a relationship with an infuriatingly condescending friend of the family, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Together, Judith and Sy inform Larry that it's probably best for Larry to move out, perhaps down the road to the nearby motel.
Making things even more complicated: Larry's weird, possibly insane brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is crashing on the family couch, and whenever he isn't draining the cyst on the back of his neck, he's scribbling chaotic mathematical formulas in a notebook. Larry's sexy/skanky next-door neighbor tempts him with pleasures of the flesh, sunbathing topless and offering him a joint. Larry's other next-door neighbor, who displays a moderately terrifying familiarity with violence, is slowly trying to steal the Gopniks' land, and doesn't seem particularly pleased by the Gopniks' Judaism.
At work, Larry's applying for tenure, a goal complicated by the fact that a student is attempting to bribe him, and the professor in charge of the tenure committee is getting anonymous letters that viciously belittle Larry. Larry's brother keeps getting in trouble with the law. Larry's rabbi is of little to no help. Larry's son calls him every five minutes, demanding he come home and fix the TV antenna so that F Troop won't come in all fuzzy.
It's not what happens in A Serious Man so much as the sheer unstoppable force of it: The insistence of life to heap shit upon piles of shit. "Please. I need help," Larry says, meekly going from rabbi to rabbi, desperate for comfort. "What's going on?" he asks, again and again, turning to work, family, and religion for support with increasing panic as all of those things crumble around him. As A Serious Man hurtles toward its jarring conclusion, it becomes apparent that as much as it is a drama, and as much as it is a period piece, it's more than anything else a ghost story. Larry is haunted: There is no escaping history and tradition. Like forces of nature, family and religion and work will always control us, and while they are beautiful, necessary things, often and ultimately, they are useless.
And yet despite all of this—and I probably should have mentioned this sooner—A Serious Man is one of the funnier movies you're going to see this year. It is absurd and weird and genuinely, perversely enjoyable. You will laugh loudly and frequently, which is a hell of thing, considering you'll walk out of the theater feeling like you've been ground into an oily paste.
The Coens, adept as they are at comic fantasias, are working from more pedestrian material here—that of their own Midwestern Jewish childhoods—and for all its style, A Serious Man always feels true, well fashioned, carefully remembered. It can be cartoonish (though the film's ludicrousness rarely trumps that of real life), it is exhausting, and it is frequently moving; indeed, in its closing moments, it achieves something damn close to revelation. "No Jews were hurt in the making of this motion picture," reads a disclaimer at the very end of the film's end credits—and one has to think that even if they were, in a story like this no one gets out unscathed.