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There was a moment in the middle of the Coen brothers' “A Serious Man” when I realized I'd synched up with the film in a most intimate fashion. The protagonist, a cuckolded nebbish named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), was atop his roof. It was 1967, suburban Minnesota. “F-Troop” was on, and Gopnik's petulant pothead son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), was bitching about the reception. Gopnik's wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), was preparing to leave him — he knew this because she ambushed him as he graded blue books, a chore even before a math-averse Korean student's bribe became a truly grave matter — and his brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), was languidly hogging the bathroom to drain a cyst on the back of his neck when he wasn't loafing around the living room.
Through it all, Gopnik, an observant Jew and a patient sort, had remained a very good sport. Now he was on the roof, diddling the antenna, seemingly picking up signals with his body. Nothing was going his way. Maybe it was the pacing or the framing or Carter Burwell's score, but I thought, “Let something beautiful come into his life.” And it's then that Gopnik turned and spied the most stunning, most naked woman in Minnesota sunning herself behind a fence next door, seemingly melting into a lawn chair, moving only to take a blissful drag off a smoldering roach.
From whence this burst of kismet, I've no idea: “A Serious Man” is among the most curiously paced movies I can remember. The best guess is, two films after their Oscar for “No Country for Old Men,” the Coens know precisely what they're doing. The comedy here isn't quite “Fargo”-dark, but it's close, and the film is set in the most fully-realized world they've created (largely, perhaps, because they apparently modeled it after their own childhoods, down to the locale). As Gopnik bleeds from his thousand paper cuts — a haranguing Columbia Record Club bill collector, attorney's fees, money missing from his wallet, a meaty-necked neighbor encroaching on his property line, incomprehensible rabbis, etc. — it's fair game to wonder what it all means, just as Gopnik does. Gopnik's search for his soul turns, dangerously, into a quest to discern God's intentions. How do we know God? What is he trying to tell us? If visits to his rabbis are any indication, the short answer is, Who knows?
Of course, as writer/directors, Ethan and Joel Coen play the role of God in this realm. In its storytelling (and its resonant climax) “A Serious Man” leaves an aftertaste like Joseph Heller's “Something Happened,” a coeval tale of a father and career man fraught on all sides. But it remains distinctly the Coens', a comedy in which virtually every character is miserable and all are subject, whether they realize it or not, to an Old Testament code best summarized by a desiccated rabbi flying high on Jefferson Airplane: “Be a good boy.” The result, if not stunning, might at least be called beautiful.