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A Serious Man with a Sense of Humor

Deeply moral and affecting, the new Joel & Ethan Coen film A Serious Man has a serious heart.

But it wouldn’t be a Coen Bros. film without an oblique sense of humor, and for a long while the message of A Serious Man doesn’t quite take hold. In fact, the Coens leave it to the final, perfect seconds of the film to resolve what they have so carefully set up. As the press agent for the film describes it, the Coens are “exploring questions of faith, familial responsibility, delinquent behavior, dental phenomena, academia, mortality and Judaism — and intersections thereof.”

Okay, so it’s a weird film. But stay with it.

In the late 1960s, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a mild-mannered professor in a mild-mannered Midwestern suburb. (The Coens grew up in Minneapolis.) Odd portents seem to follow him wherever he goes: at the office, a Korean student who failed a test passes him an envelope stuffed with cash and demands a passing grade. Larry keeps encountering his adolescent son Danny (Aaron Wolff) on the run from a bully — a pot dealer to whom Danny owes money as he studies for his Bar Mitzvah. Then, the thunderbolt. While he sits placidly grading math tests, Larry’s wife Judith (Sari Lennick) calmly informs him that their relationship is over. It seems she’s fallen for a calm-voiced, deeply reasonable, utter twit named Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed, who has an uncanny feel for this character’s unbearable pomposity.)

There is a sting of surrealness in the air. Much of it is left over from a seemingly unrelated prologue in which a Jewish couple in the old country (Russia? Poland? It’s unclear) in olden times (it could be 1890, or long before that) argue in Yiddish about the wisdom of welcoming an old man into their house. The husband thinks he’s harmless. The wife believes, and proves, that he is a monstrous “dybbuk.”

But this parable, seemingly told by the rabbis and handed down through time, gradually starts to merge with the contemporary story as Larry seeks advice from learned men, such as rabbis and a more updated version of the lawgiver — a divorce attorney. The one rabbi in the area who is believed to be among the wisest of men, though, isn’t available. It turns out the only people he counsels are boys who have completed their Bar Mitzvah. It’s a subtle reference, but it’s also the 60s in a nutshell: Youth, whose problems are limited to retrieving a missing $20 bill in order to pay off the local drug dealer, is exalted, while middle-aged chumps like Larry are pushed to the side. A joke that runs through the movie finds Larry, as he considers some new calamity, being interrupted by his son yelling that the TV aerial has to be fixed — otherwise F Troop is fuzzy.

Like Job, Larry can’t understand what is happening to him and can’t find answers in all the usual places. In a highly amusing sidebar, one of his counselors tells him the tale of a dentist who discovered Hebrew writing inscribed in the teeth of a (non-Jewish) patient. He became convinced that he was being sent a secret message. But like Larry, he was unwise to spend much time searching for meaning.

So is the film nihilist, a quality some have detected in the Coens’ earlier work? Not really. Toward the end, Larry’s choices, difficult as they are, also become clear.

He may not know it, but he is being tested to make the right choice, and few films these days take conclude with such an unblushing stance in favor of principles.

The world is changing in exciting as well as frightening ways for Larry — a sexy neighbor introduces him to pot and the Jefferson Airplane songs his son loves dominate the soundtrack. But for all of these disruptions, what remains is morals, and though much of their film is tongue in cheek, the Coens take a stand in favor of timeless values over the disposable 60s variety. If the title hadn’t been used before, the Coens could have called this film Do the Right Thing.