How the Coens Use the "Schlemiel" in Their Movies

'Burn After Reading'Credit: Relativity
They have a lot of schlamassel movies too. 

It's hard to think of auteur creators who jump genres and tones as well as the Coen brothers. They're always making comedic tragedies and tragic comedies. They can squeeze laughs out of violent events and use them to shock audiences with pivotal twists and recalibrations. The one thing that allows them to stand out from anyone else is the way they develop their characters

It turns out, a lot of them pull from the old Yiddish description of the "schlemiel" as a major characterization. So what does that mean? And how does it reflect their storytelling style and skillset? Also, how does it carry into Joel Coen's The Tragedy of Macbeth?  

Check out this video from Wisecrack, and let's talk after the jump! 

How the Coens Use the "Schlemiel" in Their Movies

Seems like right off the bat, we should define the schlemiel. According to Wikipedia, "Schlemiel (Yiddish: שלומיאל; sometimes spelled shlemiel or schlemiel) is a Yiddish term meaning 'inept/incompetent person' or 'fool.'" It's often used in Jewish humor, with the schlemiel falling into unlucky circumstances.

Well, can you think of any directors whose characters frequently fall into the schlemiel category? It seems like the Coens thrive on introducing us to people who are foolish and fall prey to their own plans. We see people like H.I. McDunnough, Jerry Lundergaard, Chad Feldheimer, Llewyn Moss, and Larry Gopnik (among many others) as the typical Coen schlemiel. These are men with plans that do not work out. They're crumbling under their stupidity or just genuinely foolish choices. 

No one is better at this than the Coens. And they don't even box themselves into the same kind of schlemiel. You can have total dimwits juxtaposed against a relative genius, like in A Serious Man. Each character buckles under their own ambition.

We love Llewyn Moss when he takes the money and gets chased by Anton Chigurh. But we also understand that he started this journey, and in the end, we understand he paid the ultimate price for it. 

'A Serious Man'Credit: Focus Features
When you think of Macbeth, he might not seem like a fool, but he is the ultimate person who reaps what he sows (along with his wife). When he murders for power, he steps into his own tangled web of problems and accusations, eventually caught up in a war he started. While not the traditional doofus, he's still the main driving force of his own undoing. 

There's so much we can learn from taking this trope and invigorating characters as well as interesting arcs. Often, the beats of each film are built around a character's choice, the fallout, and then either redemption or suffering.

Still, look at all the diverse and interesting stories they've done using these philosophies. It's an incredible feat, and a lot more complicated to dissect. 

What are your thoughts on all this? Do you have a favorite Coen schlemiel? I think mine is Ulysses Everett McGill, but I might have to think harder. Let us know your thoughts and analysis in the comments.      

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