Joel and Ethan Coen are by now pretty much expected to torment the characters they create. But should they be allowed to torment us? These are two guys who once infamously fed one of their characters into a wood chipper, which you may feel is symbolically happing to you as you watch “A Serious Man,” a dark comedy that spends more than 90 minutes poking a math professor named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlman) with a sharp stick.
Worse for Larry, the Coens create him as a total wimp. Beset by all manner of insults, from his marriage to his job, Larry's response is always complete emasculation. Having created the perfect punching bag, the Coens lay into Larry with all their fury. Since a movie protagonist is almost by default an audience surrogate, it can be difficult for us to take as well. “A Serious Man” is not an easy or easily likable film, but it's not without merit.
We know the Coens — they share writing and directing credits this time — are messing with us early, when Larry's wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), informs him of her intention to leave and marry another man, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Sy is overbearing enough to meet with Larry a couple of times to explain why this is best for everyone. Larry agrees to a favorable divorce and to move into a hotel.
Besides being very unlucky, and very prone to rolling over, Larry is otherwise a normal guy. The movie is set in the 1960s in a Midwestern suburb. Larry has the ideal nuclear family, but his daughter is petulant and headstrong, his son distressingly amoral. Then there's Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind), a jobless mathematician who spends his days in the bathroom draining a rather active cyst.
Work has a similarly solid faAade, but Larry is having trouble with a student pressuring him for a better grade, while watching his bid for tenure shaken by accusations of unethical conduct, which Larry suspects are coming from his unhappy student. The movie makes it clear that Larry deserves none of this, a fact he voices himself, pleading that he's a serious man, not a frivolous type who's gotten himself into trouble.
The crux of “A Serious Man” is Larry receiving bad news. It happens so often we don't know how to respond when something remotely good happens to him. In one scene, Larry's fixing the antenna on his roof when he spies a shapely neighbor (Amy Landecker) sunbathing nude in her backyard. Is this a respite for Larry? A respite for the audience? Both?
The Coens have preyed on the weak before. One need only go back as far as their last film, the equally dark but more broadly funny “Burn After Reading,” to find John Malkovich's cuckolded CIA agent Osborne Cox. Larry is also kin to William H. Macy's Jerry Lundegaard in “Fargo,” as well as the former champion of the wimps, Barton Fink (John Turturro), the writer who at least was afforded an opportunity to have the last word through his profession.
Larry is different. Larry gets an opportunity too, but it's ultimately just another trap. Larry's problems often seem capricious, and though that in itself could convey meaning, it lends the film a self-indulgent quality. You can easily imagine the filmmakers having a great time thinking up bad news for Larry, even as you cringe at another blow.
There are clues to what the Coens are getting at. One is Uncle Arthur, who appears to have figured out the meaning of the universe in an elaborate math equation painstakingly recorded in his notebook. That tells you a lot. The guy who figures out the meaning of the universe is unemployed, penniless and alone — society's refuse.
The Coens don't let on much more, though. Full of esoteric language (what's a dybbuk? you'll be asking yourself), inside jokes and a determinedly slow pace that offers little in the way of gratification, “A Serious Man” frequently seems to be trying to get at us as much as Larry. There's a Kafkaesque, nightmarish quality at play here that adds to a distinct aesthetic appeal, but unless you are the extremely tolerant, patient type, you'll very likely find it one of those dreams you want to wake up from early. (R) 105 min. HHHII