Coen brothers may have created a cult classic for the Jewish set

“A Serious Man,” the most Jewish and the most personal film in the Coen brothers’ 25-year career, is pitched squarely between the musical magnetic poles of Ukrainian-born vocalist Sidor Belarsky and Haight Ashbury’s Jefferson Airplane.

Belarsky’s regal, soothing tenor provides an unexpected anchor for secular Midwestern physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) as the world shakes and shudders beneath his feet after his wife declares she wants a divorce. Son Danny (Aaron Wolff), meanwhile, tunes into Grace Slick on his transistor radio, finding her words immeasurably more relevant and compelling than the unfathomable Haftorah he’s learning.

It’s 1967, and as his family splinters into shards of breathtaking selfishness, Larry is left to wander through his suburban house impotently asking, “What’s going on?” He’s a living, breathing manifestation of Bob Dylan’s iconic lyric about middle-class complacency, “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mister Jones?”

Dylan is Jewish and a native Minnesotan, as are the Coens. But it would have been predictable, and a little too on-the-nose, to use Robert Zimmerman’s tunes on the soundtrack.

These are the kind of inside jokes (and skipped jokes) that make “A Serious Man” a rare pleasure for Jewish audiences, and something of a mystery for non-Jewish moviegoers. I’d go further, in fact, and deem the movie required viewing for all American Jews above the age of, well, 17 (at least without a parent, per the R rating).

Fred Melamed stars as Sy Ableman and Sari Lennick is Judith Gopnik in “A Serious Man.” photo/wilson webb

That’s not to say that you won’t have a queasy moment or two of self-recognition on the way home, or the next day. “A Serious Man” is precisely and elegantly structured as simultaneously a delicious, deadpan comedy of manners and a savage exposé of internecine, passive-aggressive Jewish warfare.

The movie depicts the unraveling of Larry’s neatly ordered life into a paroxysm of uncertainty. What we’re really witnessing, though, is the first buffeting of outside forces against an insular and insulated Jewish community. (This summer’s “Taking Woodstock,” about a Jewish family in the Catskills invaded by the counterculture, is a breezier and more melodramatic take on the same theme.)

In desperate need of wisdom and advice, at a time when few people outside of New York or L.A. saw a shrink or a therapist, Larry calls his rabbi. He ends up approaching all three rabbis at his shul, but not one of them turns out to be a serious man.

The senior rabbi tells Larry a long, marvelously entertaining story that ultimately provides no comfort and offers no moral. This is what Jews do, the movie suggests — spin self-satisfied fables while the world races ahead.

Danny’s bar mitzvah certifies him as a man, and grants him entrée to this community. But there’s not a single moment that suggests he will become a man of character, or a serious man. Nor, for that matter, are we shown a Jewish establishment that encourages much respect or admiration.

“A Serious Man” will be viewed in some quarters as a pointed rebuke of assimilated American Jews, thoughtless materialism and the cruel hierarchy of status. But I think Joel and Ethan Coen include themselves in the indictment, through Danny. They’re revisiting their childhood, albeit in a stylized, metaphorical way. But they recognize that Danny’s indifference to Jewish values will leave him, a few decades on, in a predicament not unlike his father’s: Bobbing on the sea of life with no anchor and a malleable moral compass.

It would be a stretch to call “A Serious Man” a family picture, but I entertain the perverse notion that in time it will attain the status in Jewish households that “A Christmas Story” has among non-Jews. The Coens depict a kind of shared experience and — unlikely as this may sound — provide a rare opportunity for Jewish kin to bond around the DVD player.

But it will have to wait until the children are college age, and home for Chanukah during winter break. In other words, when they’re old enough to recognize both the fatalistic chuckles in “A Serious Man,” and the whiff of impending disaster that hovers over Larry Gopnik, as distinctly Jewish.

“A Serious Man” opens Oct. 9 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco and Oct. 16 at additional Bay Area theaters.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.