There's an old Jewish joke. I'm paraphrasing, heavily, but it's a standard form that can survive a gentile like me:
Ephraim spots his old friend Samuel walking down the street, and he rushes over to say hello. "Samuel, my friend!" he says, "how long it has been! How are you doing these days?"

"Ah," says Samuel, shaking his head, "my son has been expelled for bringing a knife to school, my daughter's goy boyfriend got her pregnant, last week my my wife told me that she is having an affair with the milkman, I can't sit down because of this terrible pain in my back, and I'm just now coming from the doctor, who told me that I have a tumor in my liver. But you know me, I can't complain."
Take the spirit of that joke if not the letter, and you more or less have A Serious Man, the fourteenth feature directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, and unarguably the most personal of all fourteen. Or, at least, unarguably the most autobiographical. A story set entirely in the Jewish community of a Midwestern suburb that's probably somewhere in Minnesota, set in 1967, A Serious Man is at once entirely comfortable in the greater context of the brothers' work - in some places it feels a great deal like Barton Fink, for a start - and at the same time something anomalous: a cast almost wholly made up of unknowns with a script that is feverishly, unapologetically Jewish - and at the same time, as bloody-minded in its critique of Judaism as any other work of art I can think to name.

The story centers on Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor whose life has been steadily losing meaning for quite a long time. When we first meet him, his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is gearing up to leave him for one of the local pillars of the community, Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed); his brother, Arthur (Richard Kind, the biggest name in the film by far), is staying on the couch and hogging the bathroom with his constant need to drain a cyst on his neck; the Gopnik kids, Danny (Aaron Wolff) and Sarah (Jessica McManus) are generally treating their dad like a piece of particularly useless furniture; and work is starting to get a bit terrifying, what with the upcoming tenure hearings happening just as a South Korean student, Clive Park (David Kang) is attempting to bribe Larry for a passing midterm grade.

As I wrote out that synopsis, it was striking - though somehow, not at all surprising or shocking - to notice that despite the film being compulsively full of incident, it has no story to speak of. I suppose you could say that the story is, "a guy whose life is disintegrating looks to find the answer to the existential problems that are plaguing him," although once you use the word "existential" in a log line, you've basically conceded that it doesn't have a story. This is because the film is ultimately structured like one of those classic Jewish jokes like the one I half-quote, half-invented up top. The humor of Jewish culture is well-known, of course, long before the Coens existed and it will continue long after they die. It comes in a few different flavors, but I'm pretty sure the one we all think of when we hear the words "Jewish humor" is of this basic kind: the joke is that life is so incredibly terrible, that you just have to laugh. Which, when you get right down to it, is pretty much exactly the territory that the Coens have been mining for most of their career, but never so explicitly yoking it to their Jewish-American upbringing.

But anyway, A Serious Man fits the idea of a joke in this tradition fairly snugly: here's a guy whose life isn't so great, and then one thing after another happens to him that makes him unhappy and has absolutely no discernible cosmic significance. He visits with three rabbis to seek answer to his great question - "Why does God want me to suffer so?" - and is thrice given no answer, or an answer that spins around meaningless (even the three rabbis give the film the overall structure of a joke!). His wife leaves him in the most humiliating manner, his children don't like him, his brother is committing crimes all over the place. And then things start to get bad. That's what the final shots of the movie mean, I am certain: like No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading but on speed, A Serious Man enjoys an unresolved ending - nay, "unresolved" is much too small a word for it, this is a positively vicious "fuck you and the horse you rode in on" kind of ending - that is the punchline to the joke the film has been telling all along. "And then things start to get bad." Which, being that this is a Coen film, is pretty damn bad indeed.

Yet it's also completely and utterly hilarious. Critics of the Coen brothers enjoy trotting out, film after film, the same complaint: they plainly view themselves as superior to their characters and to the un-cosmopolitan types they represent, and you can see that this is the case because of how much they make their characters suffer, and how they present this suffering as comic. The sort of critic who was capable of carrying that dramatically poor misreading intact from Raising Arizona into Fargo and The Big Lebowski and so on is going to have a field day with A Serious Man, which apparently serves as just so much more fuel for that particular fire. For those of us who don't have some inexplicable axe to grind against the Coens, A Serious Man serves the exact opposite function: it proves, once and for all, that the Coens have an almost embarrassing level of affection for their characters. Larry, to me, is one of the most wholly sympathetic men that I have ever seen in a film, both on the page and as brilliantly, beautifully played by Stuhlbarg (I won't have a better chance to say that this film has, top to bottom, the most exceptional cast that the Coens have ever put together). He is an Everyman that does not sacrifice his own very personal set of problems in order to stand for each and every one of us, and if he suffers greatly, and if we are encouraged to laugh at his suffering, this isn't meant to diminish him as a character, or treat his suffering as frivolous. Rather, it gets back at the Jewish thing that permeates every frame and line of dialogue in A Serious Man: the belief that to live is to suffer, and you can either be miserable about this, or you can laugh. And laughing is infinitely preferable, because that way when you eventually die - oh, and by the way, even if you solve every one of your problems, you're going to die - you'll still have enjoyed most of your meager time in this world. Larry is the secular embodiment of Tevye's good-natured complaint from Fiddler on the Roof (a movie that would make a swell double-feature with the Coen film): "I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?" In that musical, Tevye has achieved the perspective that Joel and Ethan Coen have, that their critics lack, and that Larry can't even imagine: be mirthful, be playful. The alternative is too unbearable to contemplate.

Being a Coen film, this is naturally a real great piece of film craftsmanship: Roger Deakins once again gives 110% to make a movie of great visual subtlety, its genius lying not in being showy but in simply being right in every composition and lighting choice. Their top-notch sound team, headed by Skip Lievsay, once again creates an immaculate soundscape that is, in this case, buoyed up by the inspired use of Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow. And the editing itself, by the Coens under their regular pseudonym Roderick Jaynes, is as good here as in any of their films, including a perfectly magnificent sequence involving a rambling story about a dentist and a goy's teeth that is perhaps the best-edited comic sequence in any of their films since the opening ten minutes of Raising Arizona.

But formal greatness in a Coen film is a fait accompli; what I'm really bowled over by here is the humanity of it, the inordinately precise observation that makes the traditional Coen caricatures seem so real that you just know they were based on real figures from the brothers' youth, even if it turns out that they weren't. It is, simply put, a masterpiece; maybe even their best since Fargo. It is certainly the most deeply felt.