1967. A Jewish physics professor in Midwest suburbia suffers a moral crisis as his family is beset by infidelity, a pot-smoking son studying for bar mitzvah, a daughter stealing money to buy a nose job, and a mail-order record club. The Focus Features release is nominated for two Oscars, including Best Picture.
By CBSNews.com producer David Morgan
I Want a Get
The Coen Brothers' comedy stars Michael Stuhlbarg as Lawrence Gopnik, a physics professor whose wife (Sari Lennick) announces she wants a divorce after beginning an affair with a member of his university's tenure committee.
The Envelope? Please, No
After Gopnik refuses to change a Korean graduate student's failing grade, he discovers an envelope of cash on his desk. A bribe? The student won't admit it, and the student's father implores Gopnik to "accept mystery."
Equal and Opposite Re-Action?
One lesson Gopnik tries to impart on his students (a lesson which he himself struggles to fully get) is that actions have consequences, practically and morally such as taking your eyes off the road, or crossing a double-yellow line.
The First and Second Rabbis
But do consequences come via an unseen, uncaring God? And how can people discern the purpose of life? Flailing about for answers, Gopnik seeks the wisdom of the senior rabbi, but must work his way up the pecking order with subordinates, who offer platitudes ("You have to see these things as expressions of God's will You don't have to like it, of course").
Hidden Messages, and Meanings
The Second Rabbi tells the story of a dentist who discovers Hebrew lettering in the teeth of a goy (non-Jew) which read "Help Me." But the rabbi doesn't have a moral for his tale. "We can't know everything," he tells Gopnik, who pleads for answers. The rabbi says God doesn't owe us any answers: "The obligation runs the other way."
Proof of Uncertainty
Are there hidden messages that would save those who can discern them? Even Gopnik demonstrates for his students the Uncertainty Principle: "It proves we can't ever really know what's going on."
Also troubling are the writings of Gopnik's unemployed brother Arthur, who scribbles equations and Hebraic letters into a densely-packed composition book titled "The Mentaculus," a probability map of the universe signifying either a key to winning at cards, or madness.
Today I Am a Stoner
As Gopnik's life seems to be falling apart, his son, Danny, is preparing for his bar mitzvah, in-between broadcasts of "F Troop" and the occasional toke of marijuana.
"I Am Not an Evil Man!"
It is questionable whether the wisdom received by the newly-bar mitzvah'd son will stick, but the filmmakers surely view those lessons as key to the moral crisis Gopnik (and all of us) face: What should we do? And do actions really have consequences?
Like many other Coen Brothers films, "A Serious Man" tells of characters whose ability to understand the world and their place in it is inhibited by their inability to see themselves making the world appear even more threatening, and unknowable.
Since their debut in 1984 with "Blood Simple," Joel Coen (right) and Ethan Coen have made 14 features, each evocative of their slightly skewed sense of humor and Midwestern sensibilities. They won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for "Fargo," and their 2007 film "No Country for Old Men" won four Oscars, including Best Direction and Best Picture. Their other films include "Raising Arizona," "Barton Fink," "Miller's Crossing," "The Big Lebowski," "The Man Who Wasn't There" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou."
Further expanding on the unknowable, the film opens with a turn-of-the-century tale that at first appears extraneous a figure suspected of being a dybbuk, or evil spirit, visits an Eastern European couple's farmhouse. "It just seemed like starting the movie with a little Yiddish folk tale would be somehow an appropriate introduction to the movie," said Ethan Coen. "But we didn't know any suitable Yiddish folktales, so we just made one up."
In addition to appearances on such series as "Law & Order," "Damages" and "Ugly Betty," Michael Stuhlbarg won a Drama Desk Award and was a Tony Nominee for Best Actor for "The Pillowman." He's also appeared in the films "Body of Lies," Cold Souls" and "The Grey Zone."
Rome Film Festival
Directors Joel Coen, left, and his brother Ethan Coen, right, pose with actor Michael Stuhlbarg on the red carpet to present their new movie "A Serious Man" at the 4th edition of the Rome Film Festival, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2009.