By starting a movie about Minnesota circa 1970 in the dark night of a Polish shtetl of the past, the Coen brothers make it abundantly clear: nothing is at it seems. No single reality created the skein of our memories. Especially our personal history.
The opening scene, a Yiddisher exploration of the supernatural, provides more questions than answers, and the subsequent sonic belt of Jefferson Airplane singing "When the truth is found to be lies" sets us up for a movie like no other. Sure, A Serious Man contains the typical Coen absurdities of smoking doctors and junior rabbis obsessed with parking lots, but those touches give comic relief to the unrelentingly tensions in the life of a normal man, Professor Larry Gopnick, suddenly in the midst of shifting realities that leave him lost and confused. "What's going on?" he shouts desperately on more than one occasion.
There's no real point in going through the plot, since what is true is up in the air. Accept the lack of ground below you as you watch. The South Korean father of one of Gopnick's students implores him to "Please accept the mystery." Good advice. As a physics professor, Gopnick deals with issues of motion through space and time; his life is a physics problem he can't solve. Like Schrodinger's cat, which he explains to his class, who knows if he is alive or dead. Maybe both.
But isn't it true of all our lives, that many things we thought for sure were one way, get turned around and become something else entirely? Larry is besieged by a world he doesn't quite get. His neighbor is literally encroaching on his world. The middle class Jewish culture that surrounds him gives no solace. Rabbi after Rabbi dispense empty words. Religion fails utterly. When anyone is close to giving Gopnick the answer, or any answer, they refuse. A brilliant scene involving the Columbia Record Club hammers home that even when we do nothing, punishment is sure to follow.
The title refers to a secondary character, a pompous cypher who is, quite the contrary, ridiculous to an extreme. Larry's brother is either an insane scribbler, a nerdy math wiz writing dense probability map of the universe in a much-leafed through notebook, or he's a genius. Or he's something much worse. Dreams become more real as the story unfolds and, at the end, it's still hard to fathom what actually has happened.
Back in the old days of the opening scene, the Polish wife challenges rational reality. Was she right? We don't know. Another famous Minnesota Jew once sang, who will give us shelter from the storm? And what if the storm is in our own mind? Or what if it doesn't exist at all?