Spoilers. If anyone is reading this who hasn't seen A Serious Man, then stop right here. Go see it while you can.
I really loved A Serious Man. At the moment, it's my favorite film of 2009. Like the writing on those teeth, it's going to keep me up at night until I realize that I have no proper answers to its challenge.
I saw it earlier tonight in the best of circumstances, at a great little theater with an old friend immediately after enjoying a liter mug of delicious Oktoberfest.
Brandon, I just read your post after getting back home to my parents' house after seeing the movie. Great timing. Now I'm staying up too late responding.
I'm also still struggling with the pre-credits sequence, but I love it. The best that I can make out is that it introduces themes of faith and rationality that are explored throughout and ends leaving the question up to debate. I also think that it immediately sets the film within a folklore and storytelling context. I've argued in the past that I see most Coen Brothers films as fairy tales (cf. Chesterton) or parables (cf. Meyers). I think that it is clearly the case here.
The Book of Job parallels are there, but not as overtly as many early reviewers made it sound. I went in to the film with bare minimum knowledge of it. What I had heard over and over again, though, was the Job comparison. Despite the constant refrain of "I haven't done anything," I don't think that Larry is as passive or as whiny as you make him out to be, but I think that you're on to something. Larry isn't quite a righteous man like Job even though he "hasn't done anything." He is a contented man and happy with his life. He's not sure why others can't see things the way he does.
The trouble, of course, is that he's not seeing clearly at all. Seeing, he doesn't see, and hearing, he doesn't hear. You seemed to think that the rabbis gave bad answers and that the Coens take some pot shots at the religion of their youth. I have to disagree. Larry can't see it, but each rabbi does give him a piece of wise counsel.
The scene with the first rabbi is one of my favorites in the whole film. Just look at the parking lot! Really, really hilarious. I also think that his advice is true and useful. I've already written that Larry has vision problems. He can't see what is going on around him. He does need a new perspective. He does need to look at a parking lot with wonder in his eyes. Parking lots and automobiles are freaking amazing. More so, we should be in awe that creatures just like us surround us day by day. Gobs of organs and tissues are held upright in a case of fragile flesh and we're able to vibrate the air to send thoughts to one another by flapping two pieces of meat in the middle of a meat head. We walk around on green pointy blades that bend beneath our feet. We can feel granules of sand on our toes. We have toes! The world is magical, but we can't see it.
The second rabbi gives Larry more advice that Larry doesn't want to hear and thinks is useless. Basically, the rabbi tells Larry that we live in a barely comprehensible story, that we can only understand as it is, through a glass darkly. We live with the questions and life goes on. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD." This isn't comforting to Larry, but, then again, Larry's still suffering from blindness and deafness.
The third rabbi is busy. He's thinking. This also displeases Larry, but it's obvious at this point that Larry doesn't have ears to hear anyhow.
The rabbi does speak to Larry's son and gives him what amounts to the moral of this whole tale. "When the truth is found to be lies and all the hope within you dies; what do you do then?" The rabbi's next statement, after his praise of "The Airplane," is an answer to his own rhetorical question... "Be a good boy."
I'm not sure what it means that Jefferson Airplane's lyrics were changed from JOY to HOPE, but it's there. Or did I mishear this? Anyhow, Larry has discovered that the "truth" of his life has been a lie. Not all is stable. At a certain point, he does realize that maybe, just maybe, this testing of everything in his life has made him reevaluate his perspective, but then clearly rejects the idea. What is interesting is that he remains basically good throughout. Finally, though, dealing with the lies and having his hope die, Larry makes the fatal mistake of no longer suffering through the questions. He provides his own answer. He chooses not to "be a good boy" and crosses a line. The moment he does so, the magnificent finale begins. The ending caught me by surprise, but it only took me a couple of minutes into the credits to decide that I love it.
As far as what movie it reminded you of, I'm going to guess Drag Me to Hell.
Lastly, I really liked the nightmare sequences, especially Canada.
I'm hoping to see A Serious Man again tomorrow night. I'll let you know if I do.
I finished writing this at 3am. Hopefully at least some of it is coherent.