The Coens rarely, if ever, completely disappoint, but some of their films are polarizing, even among fans. A Serious Man was nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, but didn’t receive the acclaim and financial success of some of the Coens’ bigger films, such as No Country For Old Men or Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. Many compare the story to the book of Job, and point out that the film is one of the more personal films by the Coens. The story is fairly straightforward: after a brief prologue in an Eastern European ghetto sometime in the distant past, the film jumps to 1967 where it follows Professor Larry Gropnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) as one calamity or annoyance after another is visited upon him. His wife announces she’s leaving him for the hilariously smarmy Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed); his son is smoking dope and getting in trouble for listening to rock music in Hebrew school; his daughter is saving up for a nose job and constantly going out with her friends; his troubled brother (Richard Kind, Quest of the Delta Knights) sleeps on his couch and drains his cyst in his bathroom; a foreign student who’s failing his class tries to bribe him; his tenure committee gets anonymous letters insinuating horrible things about him; his creepy redneck neighbor is slowly encroaching on his lawn; and his beautiful neighbor sunbathes in the nude and offers to smoke dope with him. Larry seeks the aid of three rabbis while he struggles with his troubles and with his student’s bribe and how to handle it. Meanwhile, his son has troubles of his own-avoiding the bully/drug dealer who he owes money and learning his Torah passage for his Bar Mitzvah.
While the film is amusing at points and the mostly familiar but not particularly well-known actors are quite amusing in their roles, the film didn’t seem to ever fully click. Stuhlbarg brings the exact amount of exasperated patience needed for the role, while Melamed is hilarious as Abelman. All three Rabbi encounters are perfect, but George Wyner’s (Spaceballs) long shaggy dog Rabbi story is a highlight of the film, and Rabbi Scott (The Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Helberg) is also quite amusing. The film may demand more than one viewing; certainly it’s a well made film that makes a point, though exactly what the point is I wasn’t entirely sure I had figured out by the end. The prologue, while also amusing, completely mystified me, both in how it connected to the larger story or its meaning. For now I’m withholding judgment on this, but certainly any Coen film is worth watching, and this is no exception.