After being informed by his doctor that he's in perfect health, math professor Larry Gopnik's (Michael Stuhlbarg) world quickly unravels. In quick succession, his mentally unstable brother (Richard Kind) moves in, a student offers Larry a bribe for a passing grade, his wife (Sari Lennick) informs him their marriage is over, he receives unexpected angry calls from a Columbia Record Club debt collector, and his teenage kids continue to ignore him, apart from his ability to fix their TV's reception problems. As Larry slowly loses control over his surroundings, he seeks counsel from various rabbis, whose parables offer little help to alleviate his anxiety and fear.
Giving away too much more of the plot would be unkind, because experiencing the totality and swiftness with which Larry's life crashes down around him is half the fun of the movie. The Coens fashion a slow-motion existential train wreck where a good and honest man drowns in events that relentlessly grow more outlandish and tragic. And understand that for all the unending pain, there are big laughs throughout -- particularly from Fred Melamed as Larry's wife's new love, Sy Ableman. Whenever Sy speaks to Larry, he offers the most caring and supportive sentiments imaginable, but he delivers them in a voice so lulling and smooth that it hilariously amplifies their insincerity.
Yet, for all the belly laughs (including a brilliant joke that gets set up in the first ten minutes but doesn't pay off until nearly the end of the movie), this is at heart a Kafka-esque nightmare. A Serious Man underscores the fact that the Coens are remarkably talented filmmakers -- very few directors could make audiences feel dread and panic this acutely while simultaneously doubling them up with laughter.
But it's the unease and not the laughter that the Coens end with, and it's hard to ignore that this is their third film in a row to wrap up with a profound spiritual bummer. The Coen brothers used to temper their skeptical view of people and life with occasional glimpses of positivity -- it's hard to find a more likeable and good-hearted hero than Fargo's Marge Gunderson, unless it's "The Dude." But, A Serious Man finds Joel and Ethan entrenched in pessimism, and that might be the most disquieting aspect of the whole movie.