It's always dangerous to take the Coen Brothers at their word, so when they say in the DVD supplemental material that the fake Yiddish folktale at the beginning of A Serious Man (2009) has nothing to do with the film that follows--that it's essentially a cartoon short before the feature--that should be an alarm bell right there. It has everything to do with the movie that follows. Or maybe it doesn't. And that's the point. Nothing in this film is certain. How appropriate is it, then, that when we first see our protagonist, Larry Gopnik, he is explicating the story of Schrödinger's Cat.
The opening scenes of A Serious Man concern a man on his way back from market who is helped on the road by a man who his wife claims has been dead for three weeks. He is a dybbuk, a ghost, and to invite one into your home is to invite ruin. This man shows up as invited and the wife stabs him with an icepick. Consequently, he wanders back into the night. Now, the question here is this: is this man actually a dybbuk? The movie doesn't say so conclusively. Do the actions of the wife curse their house? The movie doesn't say. Are the movie's actual protagonists related to these people, and are they therefore cursed? The movie doesn't say. The filmmakers invite you to make your own connections, and that's at the heart of the movie, because they've set things up such that you can never know what's actually going on. Is Larry Gopnik's wife having an affair? It doesn't say conclusively. Is his brother some kind of idiot savant, a mathematical genius? It doesn't say conclusively. Is God actively destroying Gopnik's life? The movie doesn't say. Without opening the box and killing the cat, we can't know. The Coens like this sort of thing. It's the box at the end of Barton Fink stretched out to feature length.
All comedies are predicated a little bit on schadenfreude. Mel Brooks once described the difference between comedy and tragedy thusly: "I cut my finger. That's tragedy. A man walks into an open sewer and dies. That's comedy." The Coens know this, and push the envelope. This movie doesn't evoke gales of laughter. It's more interested in the nervous variety, the "thank God that's not me" variety. The movie darkens considerably as it goes, until there's nothing funny about the ending at all, except that it's not happening to the viewer. The film's casting is just about perfect for this, because everyone on screen is vaguely familiar, but not overly so. Michael Stuhlbarg as Gopnik in particular navigates a tricky performance that requires him to be sympathetic and pathetic at the same time, while raging against an indifferent cosmos. He's the lynchpin of the movie. But this is not a movie-star driven movie.
A Serious Man takes from Fargo the virtue of a seeming verisimilitude, drawn, as Fargo is, from the Coen's upbringing in Minnesota. This effect is amplified by the fact that it's a period piece, set just far enough in the past to cement the place and time in the mind's eye. I don't think this would work in a contemporary setting, but it works beautifully in the late sixties. The film's sense of verisimilitude is further cemented by the ethnic details, also presumably from the Coen's upbringing.
The ethnic details are more important than the time period though.
For all the Judaica on display in this movie, it might very well be an atheist's movie. You can't really tell. God, if he exists in the film's universe, is silent on the matter, and his representatives on Earth, in this film a series of ever "wiser" rabbis seem to be talking out of their asses. Gopnik, for his part, understands the math of the universe--he says so to a Korean student who may be bribing him or may be blackmailing him--but he doesn't understand the consequences. The student's father, who threatens to sue him for defamation, tells him to "accept the mystery." The end of the movie consists of two cross-cut sequences in which Gopnik caves to an act of "moral turpitude" then receives an ominous call from his doctor, while his son waits to get to shelter as a tornado touches down just beyond his school. Is this the hand of God showing itself? Or is it just a bunch of random disasters? More than one critic has likened the film to the Book of Job, because the film really goes out of its way to heap shit on our hero, but even at the end, it doesn't say for sure. And for a comedy, even a dark one, it sure does deliver a shuddering chill as it cuts abruptly to black.