Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) lives in Minneapolis during the late nineteen-sixties, working at a local university where he teaches physics. But one day a problem arises when a student of his sees him in his office to complain about the F grade he has been given for the year - he won't receive his scholarship if he does not pass. Larry is adamant about not changing the grade, but when the student leaves suddenly, he realises something has been left behind: a bribe of many hundreds of dollars. Larry is a serious man, and he won't put up with that...
Actually the Coen Brothers did not start off their film in that way, as it began with a short film as an appetiser for the main feature, a made-up folk tale set some decades ago in Eastern Europe about a husband and wife which may, as they said, not have much to do with the plot of what follows, but did establish the atmosphere of one of the most ominous movies they had ever made. No Country for Old Men had that atmosphere as well, but that did not build up to a truly superb moment of "uh-oh" dread as this work did, an ending that suggests the story was not over, and there was more to come.
That being a threat rather than a promise. Poor old Larry is the modern day (well, sixties anyway) version of the Biblical Job, the hapless man who was vicitimised by God Almighty without ever getting a straight answer about why. So it was that Larry finds the problems mounting up after he is left stuck with that bribe which being the moral fellow he is he refuses to use, yet cannot return because the student would have to admit his guilt otherwise. Larry goes home that night to be told by his wife (Sari Lennick) of many years that she wants a divorce because she's found someone else, the older but far more secure Sy (Fred Melamed), and then she starts siphoning off his money without permission.
But there are little things in our hero's life which seem easily rectified if only everyone around him hadn't appeared to have been going irrevocably, selfishly mad. His neighbour who may be anti-Semitic is planning an extension to his house that encroaches on Larry's yard, he has a deal with a record seller that he knew nothing about, and most pressing, his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is living with him, as he is suffering some type of unspecified breakdown while he works out some brilliant mathematical theory that may actually be the evidence his mind is going. Nothing is now working out, so naturally being a devout Jew Larry seeks advice from God - except God isn't interested.
In fact, it could be that there is no God, and the terror of that idea, that these things are happening for no reason, only grows the more this goes on. But there are two Gods in Larry's universe, and they are the Coen Brothers: it is they putting him through these trials for their own ever-enigmatic reasons; they're not cruel, exactly, simply curious to see just how much one man can take before he breaks. What might be cruel is how funny much of this turns out to be, as you can laugh at another's misfortune, but make sure it's the laughter of sympathy for there but for the grace of... God? There were many very amusing scenes depicting Larry figuratively banging his head up against the brick wall of the unknowable deity, yet that menace mounts up, starting as a low throb in the temples, then a dull headache, and by the doomladen finale it's a full blown migraine that may well be a brain tumour. What did it all mean? Shit happens, man - and maybe God is eagerly waiting for you to fuck up. Music by Carter Burwell.