This is essentially the story of Job, but set among middle-class Jews in a mid-western suburb in 1967. Joel and Ethan Coen, joined at the hip in the credits now, dip back into their own milieu, which has been surprisingly elusive in their filmography, and get away from the big star names of their recent pictures, showcasing a mostly unknown (in the movies, at least) cast to modestly devastating effect.
In a standard ratio prologue set in some European 19th Century stetl out of Isaac Beshevis Singer, a harassed couple have a guest the wife takes for a dybbuk – and the fact that he laughs when stabbed seems to confirm it, only he starts bleeding too. Then, in 1967, we zero in on Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a family man maths professor on the verge of tenure in a university which has no noticeable protest movement, though his dope-smoking son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is covertly listening to Jefferson Airplane and avoiding his bullying dealer in the build-up to his bar mitzvah. Though he has done nothing obviously wrong, the entire world suddenly turns on Larry: his shrewish wife (Sari Lennick) not only wants a divorce but needs him to get a religious one so she can remarry persuasively bearish older man Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) without guilt, his clearly cracked and unemployable older brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is sleeping on his couch and monopolising his bathroom to drain a cyst while scribbling a notebook full of mad genius maths and getting into legal troubles, a Korean student tries to bribe him to get a passing grade and calls in his Dad when that doesn’t immediately work, a goy neighbour plans on building a boathouse which will encroach on his lawn, his wife has him (and brother) move out into a motel, anonymous hate mail about him is being sent to the tenure committee, a lawyer (an unbilled Michael Lerner) who is about to deliver good news about the boundary dispute drops dead, and a record club rep is chasing him for bills his son has run up.
Even apparent good fortune (the odious lover dies in a car crash) rebound (Larry winds up paying for the funeral) and attempts to get solace from rabbis just yield incomprehensible parables, waffle about the glory of God in a parking lot or a blank refusal. In the climax, an ominous call comes from the doctor to talk about some x-rays and a tornado is about to destroy the town! And, through it all, Larry shrugs and gets on with it, always receiving a poor turn for good works – even the brother shows no gratitude at all – and chewing his own insides out: it’s a superb turn from Stuhlbarg as a passive everyman character whose miseries and suppressed anger we can’t help but share. Previously, the Coens most Jewish work was Barton Fink, and Barton’s punishments were earned when set beside the tsuris heaped on Larry Gopnik – the prologue sets an eerie tone mostly belied by the buttoned-down, period realism (the production must have got the other halves of the rolls of horrible wallpaper used by Richard Kelly in The Box) but we get disorienting, explosive nightmare scenes that show how Larry is simmering (he imagines himself attacked by Sy Ableman’s dybbuk or shot down by his Jew-hunting neighbour and similarly hateful mini-me son) and a couple of bleary marijuana episodes as Larry has to cope with Arthur’s arrest for attempted sodomy just after he’s got stoned with a foxy nieghbour and Danny going through his bar mitzvah on weed then venturing into a scary old rabbi’s den (past a significant picture of Abraham holding a knife to Isaac’s throat) only to get significant wisdom from the Airplane quoted at him. It’s funny, but little comfort.