The lights dim, the projector starts, and the screen lights up to reveal one phrase, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” This is the beginning to A Serious Man, the newest film written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, the hottest directorial duo working in Hollywood today. Throughout the film, this quote serves as an anti-mantra for Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), the film's protagonist, whose life is very eventful and far from simple. After the credits have rolled, the phrase speaks far more to the audience than the film itself.
Larry Gopnik is a family man and university professor seeking tenure. Throughout the film, almost every aspect of his life begins to unravel. His wife wants to leave him for another man: a less attractive, more annoying colleague of his. His daughter and son are stealing from his wallet to finance a nose job and dime bags, respectively. His brother is unable to adjust to society and support himself; therefore, he sleeps on Larry’s couch. To top it all off, the tenure board is receiving anonymous letters defaming Larry.
There's indeed something very strange and inexplicably miserable about the life of Larry Gopnik. Since its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September, people have made the inevitable comparison between his life and that of Job. Unlike the story of Job, where the reader knows exactly who is behind his misfortunes, there is a mystery in this film that spurns more questions than answers. Larry's string of bad luck must be anything but coincidence, and A Serious Man compels the audience to look for some rhyme or rhythm behind the madness.
This mystery is best expressed in the film's dream sequences. Dreams are, of course, realms of indefinite cause and effect and bizarre possibilities. However, Larry's dream world is only a slight improvement over his real world, a testament to the character’s endearing modesty. These dreams, which progressively become more convincing as real segments of his life, display his hopes and desires, which are far from unrealistic. It is because of this realization, that his wildest dreams are perfectly attainable, that his unlucky streak is so mystifying. But his optimism is shattered when his dreams take a turn for the worst, be it by having his head beaten into a chalk board or his brother shot in the back of the neck.
At a post-screening Q&A session earlier this week, Michael Stuhlbarg, who gives a consistently strong performance, stressed that he tried to keep the character as constant and believable in dreams as in reality. Stuhlbarg also credited the make up crew, pointing out that the Larry of his dream world is clean shaven, more rested, and generally more at ease than the Larry of the real world.
Beyond acting and make up, the direction of the film is technically superb. It’s clear the Coen brothers’ magic didn’t flop along with Burn After Reading. The camera glides lightly through Larry's world of 1960's suburbia, yet has its heavy moments too; in fact, a large part of the film is spent in close ups assesing Larry and his family, trying to understand just what they are thinking or feeling. Director of photography Roger Deakins, who in Fargo captured the essence of Middle America so well, returns for another collaboration with the Coens. In A Serious Man, he highlights the stagnation of Midwestern suburbia. Along with every other aspect of this film, Carter Burwell's soundtrack hits the right note.
Surely upon release people will focus around the film's closing scenes. Certainly the ambiguity toward the fate of the central characters will add fodder to criticism from those who imagined a more cohesive film. However, those who see the film for what it truly is will not be disappointed, as it is one the Coens’ best and deserves a spot alongside Fargo and No Country for Old Men.