Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), an earnest professor of physics, has his troubles. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) wants to leave him for the touchy-feely, sanctimonious Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed). He's up for tenure, yet someone keeps sending the faculty committee letters questioning his character. His pot-smoking son (Aaron Wolff), nearing his bar mitzvah, and daughter (Jessica McManus), who wants a nose job, are at each other's throats. His mentally unstable brother Arthur (Richard Kind) has moved in and is working on an insane text charting the probabilities of the universe.
For good–or bad–measure, Larry is also the subject of a bribe attempt by a Korean student (David Kang) who is upset at his grade; he gets into an auto accident, and he is being harangued by a caller from the record-of-the-month club.
As Larry encounters his disasters in a bland suburb during the 1960s (suggested by both the son's pot habit and the Jefferson Airplane soundtrack), this modern-day Job starts to ask the big questions. What is the meaning of all these tribulations? What does God want from me? He seeks counsel from rabbis who present nonsensical parables. When one or two of Larry's difficulties start to resolve themselves, another one comes along.
Directors Joel and Ethan Coen's "A Serious Man" is both bleak and hilarious, reminding one of the fatalism of Woody Allen, especially his "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989), and, for that matter, the writings of Franz Kafka. Yet there are hints in the film that one is best off with an attitude of acceptance. It starts with a Zen-like quotation from the rabbi and scholar Rashi: "Accept with simplicity everything that happens to you." The father of the Korean student advises Larry to "Accept the mystery" of the moral paradox embodied by the fact that he and his son are ready both to bribe and sue him.
Whether this physics professor can simply accept it all is, like everything else, open to question. As the questions pile up and the answers are not forthcoming, the film also suggests that such acceptance would give way to a skepticism embodied in the Yiddish expression, "If prayer did any good, they'd be hiring men to pray."