A film by the Coen Brothers, A Serious Man (2009) begins with a prologue, set many decades ago, in which a Jewish peasant woman believes the man her husband has been speaking with is a ghost. After he comes to the couple’s home, the woman coldly stabs him, expecting the man to be unharmed; but he isn’t. Seemingly he starts bleeding from the wound, inducing the husband to assert that now the couple are “ruined.” Are they? Is the man not a ghost? Has terrible fortune descended?
Then the movie jumps ahead to the mid-Sixties and concentrates on Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), another Jewish man, a physics teacher living in a prosperous America. But he starts living unhappily. Pains and burdens are mounting, and just as serious questions were raised by the prologue, they are raised by the footage of Larry’s experiences. What is the cosmic purpose for his suffering? Is he not morally good enough to be happy? Problems arise for Larry’s family too, though they’re not as intense as those for Larry. The entire family, like other characters in the film, are markedly Jewish, for the Jews, the Coens impart, are people with problems. Are there multiple ghosts who have cursed them?
A Serious Man jeers at people and has no trust in Life or Fate. Regrettably, it is a trifle too cheeky and mocking to be wholly appealing; but it’s a funny and involving tragic farce all the same. Its cast is sophisticated, with a Stuhlbarg who’s very good at befuddlement and, well, everything else.