As the curtain rises on Joel and Ethan Coen's suburban comedy "A Serious Man," you may wonder if you're in the right theater. In the opening sequence, the Polish peasant Velvel and his wife huddle in their hovel while a fist pounds at their door. Has the almighty Hashem blessed them with a visitor? Or cursed them with a soul-stealing dybbuk?
This short horror film ends with spilled blood but no clear moral, setting the tone for a more modern but equally equivocal fable. In 1967, a nebbishy physics professor, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), endures various humiliations, misfortunes and temptations. His friend Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed) is openly dating his wife (Sari Lennick). Money woes are mounting, some due to Gopnik's pot-smoking son (Aaron Wolff). And a Korean student is offering a substantial bribe for a passing grade.
That's life, says more than one unhelpful rabbi. More accurately, it's life according to the Coen brothers, whose bleak worldview seems shaped by the Book of Job and Franz Kafka's "The Trial." From their 1984 debut, "Blood Simple," to last year's "Burn After Reading," the Coens have been putting characters (and audiences) through the wringer while refusing to make it all "mean" something.
"A Serious Man," though, offers an unusually crystalline example of their black-eyed brand of Zen. "I want an answer!" Gopnik shouts to the heavens, but it's no use. The best advice comes from the Korean student's father, who simultaneously denies the bribe and offers it afresh. "Please," he tells a baffled Gopnik. "Accept the mystery."