Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen have produced an exceptional (if not always consistent) body of work marked by their knack for not giving audiences what they expect. The Coens not only make movies in an offbeat range of genres but also focus on characters and stories that don't follow standard genre conventions.
So while the Coens' new comedy-drama A Serious Man has been labeled a "Jewish" film because much of the action deals with the rabbis and ceremonies at a synagogue, it shouldn't be a surprise that the movie has little directly to say about religion. At the same time, A Serious Man is deeply concerned about a question explored in numerous spiritual films: Are we living the best lives we could?
The central character, physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, who admirably avoids a Woody Allen imitation) is too overwhelmed with problems to give this question real thought. His wife Judith is demanding a divorce so she can marry their pompous friend Sy (the hilarious Fred Melamed). His disturbed brother sleeps on his couch and hogs the bathroom. A student is alternately bribing and threatening Larry (who's seeking tenure). And he's terrified by the goy hunter living on one side of him and turned on by the housewife living on the other. Larry even has the Columbia Record Club (one of many details that ground the movie in its 1960s suburban setting) pestering him for seemingly no reason.
We empathize with Larry and his troubles, but should we admire or even like him? The filmmakers subtly point to the myriad missed opportunities in Larry's life. Judith seems fed up with how oblivious Larry is to her and their children (Sy may be a jerk, but at least he reaches out to others). Larry is the sort of teacher who turns his back to his students while scrawling incomprehensible physics problems on the blackboard; worse, he never commits to the ethical stance he's taken regarding his ruthless student – the one action that marks Larry as the "serious" man he alleges he wants to be.
Larry avoids truly engaging on a human level with anyone, but his real failing is less about not doing good as it is not doing anything. Like most of us, Larry allows his problems to overwhelm his attention to the world around him. The Coens' superb cinematographer Roger Deakins often shows Larry bathed in glorious sunlight yet oblivious to it – Larry's too caught up in adjusting the TV aerial for his whining son Danny or worrying about his neighbor's property violation to see all life offers.
Danny's bar mitzvah offers hope that Larry and his family can start over. But Larry still seems wholly unprepared for what's coming his way at the movie's climax. The moral of A Serious Man seems to be the chorus of the Jefferson Airplane song that serves as a motif throughout the movie: Whether in our misguided everyday lives or when real danger confronts us, you better find somebody to love.