You know how when you were tiny you’d go to the cinema and they’d show a short before the feature? A Serious Man, the new Coen brothers film, has a little short prefixed to it about a shtetl couple and a macabre encounter. After it, the film seems like an non-sequitur. But in the light of the film, you wonder if what occurred in the short was the origin of a curse, or of a consequence, or, then again, nothing of consequence. The film, it turns out, is about existing: significance, purpose, reaction, consequence, insignificance, meaninglessness, and unenlightenment.
Larry Gopnik, a physics lecturer, spends the film reacting to events. The only time he initiates an action, his reward is prematurely punctured by the arrival of a police car. In contrast his son, Danny, is insouciantly assertive. After his bar mitzvah the gnomic rabbi neglects to make any sort of moral intervention, and Danny, uninterrupted, contemplates delaying the repayment of a debt on the off chance that his creditor may be killed by a tornado. But this film is so heavy with religion and we have been so well primed that we wonder if the tornado might do for Danny instead. Perhaps the most masterful masterly thing the Coen brothers achieved in this film was to slip so much death into it without anybody noticing – a bit like life.
I could write a lot about A Serious Man but Peter Bradshaw’s Guardian review says everything else, and in fact that review is damn near as perfect as the film.