A prologue relates a Jewish folktale about a dybbuk, a roaming demon who takes the form of a dead person, before cutting to 1970 and 13-year-old Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff) listening to Jefferson Airplane through an earbud in his Hebrew School class. It is Danny's dad Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) for whom the truth is found to be lies; a math professor and a strictly rational man who admits he doesn't really understand Schrodinger's cat, Larry's world is rocked when his wife (Sari Lennick) announces that she is leaving him for Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a widower regarded in the community as a "serious man." Sy's attempts to console Larry through his own betrayal, as well as false allegations from a student (David Kang) and Larry's brother, who stays on Larry's couch and alternates his time between draining a cyst and working on an all-encompassing probability model called The Mentaculous, as well as other assorted peripheral lunacies, have spun Larry into an existential crisis. We're encouraged to both laugh at Larry's spiralling misfortune and recognize it as our own; it's telling that the Coens admitted Larry was partly inspired by their father, even as they also confess they loved coming up with new ways to torture Larry.
Larry's plight has been frequently compared by critics to Job, although the Coens have pointed out that it's Larry's rational assumptions, rather than his faith, that are being challenged. But there's no question that Larry's story is deeply rooted in Jewish philosophy and humor; if Barton Fink is a horror movie about anti-Semitism, A Serious Man is the Coens' most reflective look at their religion. When Larry asks two rabbis for spiritual counsel, the first pontificates about the wonder of parking lots while the second shares a long parable that only serves to further confuse Larry; the rabbis are the latet in a long line of authority figures sitting behind big desks that the Coens regard warily. At the same time, they're among our most morally serious filmmakers - their films demonstrate over and over that crime doesn't pay. As Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out, the Coens have a pragmatic approach to morality - to do good brings "freedom from fear of loneliness and the nagging suspicion your existence is meaningless" (or, as a rabbi in the film puts it, "A sign from Hashem? Don't know. Helping others? Couldn't hurt"). But Larry's fate doesn't seem connected to his actions. He faces constant challenges to his assumptions about the way the world works, from the sexy neighbor (Amy Landecker) who sunbathes nude and asks Larry if he enjoys "the new freedoms" to the Columbia House representative who insists Larry purchased Santana's Abraxas (Stuhlbarg is hilarious as a man in a constant state of freefall). More so even than No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man wrestles with the seeming arbitrariness of existence - it's equal parts hilarious and deeply unsettling.
As with most of the Coens' films, A Serious Man recreates an extremely specific time and place in meticulous detail. Here, Minnesota in 1970 is populated by stage and character actors we have few, if any, prior associations with; the characters feel as if they're born directly from the Coens' memories of their adolescence. Melamed is a particular standout, his sonorous tones the perfect voice for a well-respected man who urges others to do the right thing even as the "right thing" frequently lines up with his own self-interest. If Sy Ableman embodies the contradictions of early-70s suburbia - equal parts amoral and beholden to tradition - they Danny points towards an uncertain future. Presumably the Coens' stand-in, Danny is inarticulate and constantly stoned, his small-scale problems upstaged, finally, by a growing awareness of the chaotic world around him. What finally connects A Serious Man to the previous two films is an ending that refuses to wrap up the inexplicable, and a wary respect for things that cannot be dreamt up in our philosophy.