This notion that Joel and Ethan Coen consider themselves superior to the characters they depict is sure a persistent one. It's an accusation that can be answered one of two ways: "Really?" and, more conveniently, "What of it?" My own view of the matter is that the Coens actually do have a great deal of affection/sympathy for their creations. They just have a funny way of showing it, is all.
I mean, for all The Dude goes through, he still abides, no? To cite other artistes who could be deemed Imperial Creators: Tex Avery loved Screwball Squirrel, but he killed the fellow anyway. Vladimir Nabokov actually considered it an act of mercy to reveal himself to Krug, and thus drive that pitiful lead character insane, at the end of Bend Sinister. It's all a matter of perspective when it comes to the Coens. You could go into the theater with this notion that they're about to play some sort of nasty joke on you, in which case you really are likely to emerge from the viewing in a huff of some sort. Or you could go in expecting to enjoy a joke.
At least that's how it works with a number of their movies, their prior, Burn After Reading, being one of them. The problem for the Coens is that they happen to have made a handful of what some call "serious," or "mature" movies. This sets them somewhat apart from Quentin Tarantino, who's never done any such thing (although one might consider Jackie Brown a sort of feint toward "maturity"), in that it gives the scolds out there some material ammunition; it allows them to moan, "Why do you waste your time and mine on such puerile dreck when you could be constructing masterpieces on the level of Fargo and No Country For Old Men?"
A Serious Man must be especially maddening for such folks (I have stayed away from most of the reviews of it so far, reading only three, and, wow, I kind of can't believe how largely perceptive Armond White's piece on it is), as it is something new in the Coen oeuvre: A completely seamless hybrid of their putatively mature mode with their outrageous cartoonish one. This '60s-set tale of an ever-beset Midwestern Jew is a The Book of Job on acid and running on a 360 horsepower engine. The 19th-century-set preface, in which a well-meaning schlemiel brings a dybbuk into his home, doesn't need a follow-up or an explanation; it succinctly states the film's dual theme: It's always something, and more often than not, it's something you could have avoided. Poor Larry Gopnik, the film's constantly put-upon protagonist, is a very smart, and kind, and largely blameless man, but what he fails to grasp is that his passivity is part of what's bringing about his downfall. He lets everybody—wife, daughter, son, brother, students—roll over him, and can't quite figure out how that's eroding him even after his attempts at soliciting spiritual counsel/succor leave him thoroughly unsatisfied. (Let me say here that the film's acting is top-to-bottom flawless and inspired.)
David Foster Wallace wrote a wonderful essay on Kafka's humor, and I don't know if the Coens ever read it, but even if they haven't, as Jewish artists they clearly understand it. Kafka's humor, I mean. Now Kafka didn't invent his sense of humor, any more than Lenny Bruce invented his. What was the first Jewish joke, anyway? The Lord telling Abraham to kill his son and then at the last minute saying, "Nah, forget about it?" Esau selling his birthright for a mess of pottage? We got a million of 'em. Poor Larry in A Serious Man is treated like Gregor Samsa by pretty much everyone around him, and he hasn't even changed into a bug. If you don't think that's funny, what's wrong with you?
I mention Kafka. The more simple-minded among this film's assessors will likely mention Philip Roth. But that's not quite right: the film's other literary affinity, really, is with the work of Stanley Elkin, whose novels are replete with short-legged dyspeptic dybbuks and pompous long-winded schnorrers and all other manner of strangely heart-warming grotesques, and are largely set in the American midwest, even. And all these characters, like Larry in this film, are getting into dire situations, the direness of which increases with both harrowing imaginativeness and practically sadistic alacrity. Again, I can't say whether the Coens are conversant with such Elkin works as The Franchiser or A Bad Man, but I daresay the fellows could make better than halfway decent films out of either of those books, and several other of his novels and/or novellas.
The only place the film falls short, for me, is in the punch line to the rabbi theme; it's just not set up convincingly enough. And why snub the bassist? (You'll understand when you see the film. Don't worry, what I've given you isn't a spoiler.) But compensation is provided by, among other things, the final shot is, which, in its definitively mordant way, pretty much as cosmic as the final shot I've been raving about in Resnais' Wild Grass.
One of the other reviews I have read is the Village Voice notice. It's by Ella Taylor, a consistent ninny whose oeuvre constitutes a very persuasive argument for the abolition of film criticism. In damning this "loathesome" film, she cites a press release in which the Coens admit that the most fun they had in the writing of the film was "inventing new ways to torment Larry." For Taylor, this is absolutely damning. You'd think that she'd mistaken Larry for an actual person. In which case, she's more susceptible to the Coens' art than she believes she is. And still an utter dumbass for all that.
Go see this thing. Seriously.