The old and the new wash over Larry in waves, and he doesn't get a chance to catch his breath. The Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love"mixes with the mournful tones of Sidor Berlasky's "Dem Milner's Trern" ("The Miller's Tears"). Even a lull in the fraying of his life is nothing more than the quiet before the storm.
You're wondering what's so funny about this, and in fact, nothing is funny about this, ipso facto. But what are you going to do, laugh or cry? The Coen brothers and their casting directors have assembled a cast of prodigious comic talent. The timing is flawless. The smallest details are in place. Nearly everything in the script is funny, from the chalk squeaking on the board during Hebrew classes to the running jokes about Sy Ableman and the "get." You won't ever forget the tale of the goy's teeth, set with hilarious effect to the sounds of Jimi Hendrix's "Machine Gun."
Above all, you will love Larry Gopnik, and sympathize with this everyman. You'll see yourself in him. I'm sure you've tried to do the right thing in life. I'm sure you've tried to do no harm, to raise your children well, to meet your responsibilities without complaint. Every time Larry asks, "What's going on?" you'll really hope for the answer. Every time Larry humbly protests, "I haven't done anything," you'll know he speaks for you. And yet, the sun shines equally on the good and the wicked.
Horace Walpole remarked that the world is a comedy to those who think, and a tragedy to those who feel. This movie is a perfect balance of both, and plays freely with the art of the possible. There are so many likely answers here to the perennial questions of life. And just as we manage to find some way to live despite life's challenges, in this movie we'll find some kind of answer. It may not be the right answer, or even a very reassuring one, but it will be one we can live with.
Beth Davies-Stofka teaches courses on comparative religion and the philosophy of religion. She has also been an online columnist and critic and contributes regularly to the Patheos site.