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The Coens' A Serious Man: The 36 Righteous Men Theory

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood March 1, 2010 at 10:11AM

Joel and Ethan Coen are not ones to throw the wrath of God around lightly, especially in A Serious Man, a movie that digs deep into Judaism, often for laughs. After all, the movie (which is nominated for best picture and best original screenplay Oscars), starts out in Yiddish with a story about the Dybbuk and winds up (SPOILER ALERT) with its hero facing death, either by cancer or tornado.
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Thompson on Hollywood

Joel and Ethan Coen are not ones to throw the wrath of God around lightly, especially in A Serious Man, a movie that digs deep into Judaism, often for laughs. After all, the movie (which is nominated for best picture and best original screenplay Oscars), starts out in Yiddish with a story about the Dybbuk and winds up (SPOILER ALERT) with its hero facing death, either by cancer or tornado.

Author/screenwriter Michael Tolkin (The Player) knows his religion well enough to recognize the words lamed vavnick when he hears them. It refers to one of 36 righteous men who hold up the world, "whose burden or responsibility is unknown to them," he writes in the current issue of Written By, the Writers Guild magazine. Tolkin suggests that A Serious Man's hero, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is one of those righteous men, but doesn't know it, and holds off his family's curse. But when he makes a fateful error in ethical judgement, he unknowingly brings on the destruction of the world:

So...if you're a weak man in most ways, but at least morally responsible except in fantasy, and at a crucial moment you change a grade for money, then it's divine will that you get the call that says you are going to die, and that the same whirlwind that killed Job's children comes for yours.

Here's the Wikipedia entry on Tzadikim Nistarim.

Meanwhile, religion writer Cathleen Falsani has written a book, The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers about spiritualism in the Coens' movies. "There is a moral order to the Coen-iverse," says Falsani in this video interview. In their films, "the highest order is to be decent."

The original Dude, Jeff Dowd, sings the praises of the movie Dude, Jeff Bridges, who could win his first Oscar this year.

Jews are all over the Oscar race. A Serious Man and Inglourious Basterds are competing for original screenplay (now Inglourious Basterds is being touted as a retelling of the story of Purim, last Sunday's Jewish holiday), while adapted screenplay nominee Nick Hornby's An Education has kicked up some fuss about its negative portrait of Jews in 60s London. Hornby states that Lynn Barber's memoir is quite accurate to the period. UPDATE: And In Contention reports that “Navi” is Hebrew for “A Prophet.” Who knew?

This article is related to: Awards, Directors, Stuck In Love, Oscars, Coens, Screenwriters


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.