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

by Anne Thompson
March 1, 2010 10:11 AM
4 Comments
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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?

4 Comments

  • Barry | March 3, 2010 10:33 AMReply

    UPDATE: Book Soup, which surely has the best-stocked magazine section is Los Angeles, has not received a copy of "Written By" in several months, according to the manager.

  • Yair Raveh | March 3, 2010 7:54 AMReply

    Purim began and ended on Sunday. Just one day.

  • Barry | March 3, 2010 6:41 AMReply

    Does anyone have a link to that Written By article? I would dearly love to read what Tolkin wrote about "A Serious Man". Thanks in anticipation...

  • Edward Wilson | March 2, 2010 11:47 AMReply

    Yeah...but...Larry had his X-rays done at the beginning of the movie. That means that whatever the doctor was calling about at the end already existed.

    That's the existential conundrum of the movie. Are these things happening to him for a reason, or is that just life? And are the things happening to him really so bad, or is it just his inability to make decisions and deal with things?

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