"Please. I need help," Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) pleads in A Serious Man, the 14th - and best, and most heartfelt - film by Joel and Ethan Coen. But there's no help to be found here. Larry, dutiful husband, caring father, responsible college professor and all-around mensch living in Minnesota in 1967, is about to discover that everyone is out for himself, and woe to those who assume other people really care about you. Even God can't be bothered. He's busy, you know?
That summary may sound bleak, and, on one level, A Serious Man certainly qualifies as a cinematic cry of despair. But the movie is primarily a dark, acidic comedy, one that argues that the snowballing problems facing Larry - an adulterous wife (played by Miami native Sari Lennick), a trouble-prone son (Aaron Wolf), a ne'er-do-well brother (Richard Kind), anonymous threats to his pending tenure and a student's attempt to bribe him - are all a result of his complacency, of his willingness to sit back and let life happen to him.
Larry's attitude is inexorably linked to his Jewish faith, which he observes rigorously but which has little use in the secular world beyond his neighborhood. The Coens drew on their Jewish upbringing in a Minnesota suburb to create A Serious Man's insular enclave of tract houses harboring quantities of unexpected Judaica. They also begin the movie with a seemingly unrelated Jewish fable set in the 19th century, a warning that the story to follow should not necessarily be interpreted at face value.
When he becomes exasperated by his mounting dilemmas, Larry takes the advice of a friend ("We're Jews. We have that well of tradition to draw from") and consults a procession of rabbis. "What does it all mean?" Larry wants to know. But who the hell can answer that?
Larry can teach the Uncertainty Principle to his students, but he can't apply his lessons to his life. Ably played by the unknown Stuhlbarg, who renders the character sympathetic instead of buffoonish, Larry becomes the butt of a cosmic joke in which everyone - even a persistent bill collector for Columbia House - seems to be lining up against him.
"Accept the mystery," says the father of the student Larry has accused of bribery. But Larry has reached the point at which he needs - craves - facts, not mystery or ritual. "Why does He make us feel the questions if He's not going to give us the answers?" he demands of one of the rabbis.
Some critics have interpreted A Serious Man as a work of Jewish self-loathing, but that's a reductive reading of this clever, shatteringly funny movie, which often recalls Barton Fink without all the distancing stylistic fluorishes and ends on an astonishing final shot that ranks among the best in the Coens' canon.
A Serious Man is profoundly personal in its details, but I suspect the Coen brothers might have made a similar movie whatever the particulars of their upbringing. The milieu would have been different, but the message would have been the same - clearly spelled out in the lyrics of Jefferson Airplane's Somebody to Love, which Larry's son is always listening to via the earpiece of his transistor radio.
That song, which becomes a sort of mantra to the movie, is the key to understanding what the Coens are after: When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies, you better find somebody to love.
A Serious Man opens Friday Oct. 23 at the Regal South Beach and AMC Aventura in Miami and the Sunrise in Fort Lauderdale.