The movie tells the tragicomic story of Larry Gopnik (played by Tony Award nominee Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish Midwestern college professor in the late 1960s who has a crisis of faith. "We grew up as Jewish kids in a suburb of Minneapolis and we know that being Jewish there was very different from being Jewish in a big city like New York or Los Angeles," says Joel. "The film also shows some of the results of post-war shifts, as minorities moved to the suburbs."
Still, A Serious Man is neither a standard social drama nor a typical dysfunctional family tale. It focuses on Larry, a latter-day Job who must deal with his unhappy wife, an unemployed brother with social (and possible mental) problems, and a disgruntled student trying to bribe him, among other trials -- all at the same time his son Danny prepares for his Bar Mitzvah. "Making a film always imposes more order and rationality on the ideas you start out with," says Ethan.
However, some of the finished product may not seem so rational to audiences, such as the short opening parable (spoken in Yiddish with English subtitles) about a husband and wife visited by a dybbuk (an evil spirit possessing the soul of a dead person) or the bit about the dentist and the "Goy's teeth" imprinted with a message in Hebrew.
Finding the right cast, which includes Richard Kind as Larry's brother Arthur, Sari Lennick as Larry's wife Judith, Fred Melamed as Judith's pompous lover, Sy, Fyvush Finkel as the Dybbuk, and Adam Arkin as Larry's attorney, was extremely important to the pair. And as the Coens admit, it took some time to cast Stuhlbarg, even though they were familiar with his work. "We actually knew him from his work with the 52nd Street Project, which my wife [Frances McDormand] is involved in," explains Joel.
One of Stuhlbarg's biggest challenges was being believable as a physics professor. "Larry has got these long, involved mathematical proofs which he rattles off with ease -- especially the one about Schrodinger's Cat and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. So I had to study with a real physics professor to get up to speed," he says. "This isn't a gym body, so there was no need for physical preparation. Except for the time I get my head bashed into the blackboard. When we first shot it, I told them, 'I know I can do better,' so we shot it again. And I got a spontaneous round of applause on the set."