Accept the Mystery
Chaos and uncertainty have always been major components of films by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. Most of their work can be described as "crime gone wrong" movies, where schemes to enrich one's self with illegally obtained piles of cash get hit with unexpected events, causing all sorts of grief to the characters involved. Now, uncertainty takes center stage in A Serious Man, with no crime plot necessary to illustrate its far-reaching influences.
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a normal Jewish school teacher and family man circa 1970, has so many woes suddenly befall him he could be considered a modern-day Job; and as he seeks answers, advice, solutions, and distractions from his problems, he gains neither reassurances nor sympathy. But throughout the movie, which includes a subplot about his son, a heck of a story about a dentist told by a rabbi, many crazy dream sequences, and a completely non sequitur prologue -- all colored by the Coens' blackly comic tone -- observations can be made about having the perspective to understand and accept not only the role of chaos in life, but also its true degree in affecting anyone's happiness (and this take feels wiser than the fatalistic one given in No Country for Old Men).
Whether or not our protagonist learns any lesson is rather immaterial -- his story is given as an illustration, and doesn't even have a traditional three-act arc, which only accentuates the beauty of the Coens' presentation, giving appropriate form to their themes.
Boldly scripted (by the directors) and impeccably shot (by Roger Deakins, of course), A Serious Man is as great a movie as the brothers have ever made, pure and unfettered by the mechanics of plot; and the more they're allowed to create artistic, offbeat, and, yes, humorous movies like this, the more I'm amazed that anyone can get away with it -- because surely no one else in the studio industry would be given this kind of latitude. And we should be thankful, because not only is this movie different, it's also about something -- the size of life in relation to one's understanding of the size of the universe. And that the Coens might even laugh at me for making such a statement makes it all the better.
(Released by Focus Features and rated "R" for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com .