“What’s going on?” Larry Gopnik asks several times throughout A Serious Man. “I didn’t do anything!” he often exclaims when confronted with unwarranted consequences. Larry is a physics professor, hoping to attain tenure at his university and proving to his students that “we can never really know what’s going on.” Simultaneously hilarious and somber, Larry is the victim of banal but relentless misfortunes throughout the film.
His wife wants a divorce, his kids don’t care, his brother is mentally unstable and has a cyst that is infinitely in need of draining, and a student is attempting to bribe him into handing out a passing grade. It’s reminiscent of another Coen picture, The Man Who Wasn’t There, featuring a passive protagonist who, as he continuously states, “hasn’t done anything.” Michael Stuhlbarg is fantastic in the role, his Gopnik a slightly atypical creation for the Coen Brothers. Unlike many of their heroes Gopnik is smart. He’s perceptive and thus confused by this onslaught of misfortunes, an onslaught that evokes The Book of Job.
Larry wants answers from God. He visits various Rabbis, all various levels of stupid, seeking wisdom and finding hilarious pseudo-philosophical foggy responses (“Just look at that parking lot!”). A cast full of relative no-names by industry standards destroys most A-list counterparts, bringing characters to life and cracking Coen existential jokes. The Gopnik family lives in a Jewish suburb in the 1960s. Every location in the film is utterly banal but cinematographer Roger Deakins makes every beautiful frame look absolutely important. And each frame is. Or maybe not, the Brothers seem to say. The most insightful line comes from the father of the failing student as Larry presses him about the origins of the bribe-money: “Accept the mystery.”