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Provocative ‘Serious Man’ asks big questions

No matter what your own thoughts are on God and faith, you’ll be fascinated by what the Coens have to say.

If Philip Roth and Franz Kafka sat down to write an adaptation of the Book of Job, the result might be something like “A Serious Man,” the thought-provoking new film from Joel and Ethan Coen. Viewers are advised to go out for coffee afterward to discuss just what happened and why and what it all means.

Set in the 1960s, the film examines faith and religion, crime and punishment, and the very notion that a supreme being might actually be paying close enough attention to lay down some Old Testament smiting when we step out of line. And no matter what your own thoughts are on the subject, you’ll be fascinated by what the Coens have to say.

Physics professor Larry Gopnik (stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg) is, to say the least, not having an easy time of it. The head of his tenure committee keeps making oblique statements that could be interpreted as encouraging or as terrible. Larry’s wife Judith (Sari Lennick) wants to leave him and is asking for a get, an official Jewish divorce, so that she can marry their friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) in the church. She also wants Larry to move out of the house and into the local motel while they work things out.

Larry’s brother Arthur (Richard Kind) spends his days on some combination of mathematics and Jewish mysticism right out of “Pi,” but keeps using it to gamble illegally. As for Larry’s children, daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) does nothing but complain about Uncle Arthur locking himself in the bathroom all day to drain his cyst, while son Danny (Aaron Wolff) smokes pot on the sly, preps for his upcoming bar mitzvah, and nags his father to fix the TV aerial so he can watch “F Troop.”

Oh, and Larry’s Korean student Clive (David Kang), refuses to accept the fact that he’s failing Larry’s class and insists on bribing the professor for a better grade. And Larry’s neighbor, a scary-looking hunting enthusiast, has plans to build a deck that would come right up to Larry’s dismal suburban property.

It’s no wonder that Larry is plagued with dreams, some about the crushing forces of the universe, others about sexy Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker), the nude sun-bather next door.

At first, Larry’s inertia and unwillingness to speak up for himself can be frustrating, but the Coens have created a fascinating Everyman; at some point in “A Serious Man,” one begins to wonder just how many coals they can rain down on their poor protagonist’s head before he finally snaps.

Coen country

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Coen country

Enter the world of Joel and Ethan Coen, from the frosty “Fargo” to the brutal “Blood Simple.”

It’s hard to talk about where, exactly, “A Serious Man” fits into the Coens’ filmography, mainly because their movies often feel like a series of deviations with no norm. The movie is probably one of their most humane — so often the characters in the brothers’ films feel like chess pieces that move the plot along (“No Country for Old Men”) or buffoons to which an audience may feel superior (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”), but the Coens seem to have real affection for Larry and his existential crises. Masterfully played by Stuhlbarg, Larry Gopnik may be the Coens’ most three-dimensional character. (To paraphrase Patton Oswalt’s recent CD title, his weakness is strong.)

Wisely using a cast of screen unknowns — Kind and Adam Arkin are about the only familiar faces here — the Coens completely submerge us into this world and keep the plot as unpredictable as possible; when characters aren’t being played by movie stars, suddenly anything can happen to them.

So when things finally go the way they go, you won’t have seen them coming. And you’ll talk about the ending — and the Eastern Europe–set prologue, and Danny’s meeting with the rabbi, and so many other moments from “A Serious Man” — for years to come.

Follow Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at .