Life's no picnic when you're the lead in a Coen Bros film.
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19 Nov 2009 - 1:20 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

In A Serious Man, the new feature from the reliably unpredictable Joel and Ethan Coen, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is many things: he's a husband whose wife is leaving him for an overly relaxed acquaintance; a father to a perpetually stoned son and a daughter who thieves to fund her desired nose job; a brother to a layabout sibling who won't vacate his living room couch; a teacher being sued by the father of student he's failing; and a Jew who can't get a straight answer from not one, not two, but three rabbis.

In other words he's that classic Coen character: the straight man, the sap who endures all the misfortune that the filmmaking duo can ladle onto his weary but accommodating shoulders. In honour of Larry's arrival in cinemas, here's a few of our favourite put upon characters from the Coen canon. Long may they endure misfortune and do the wrong thing.

H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage)
Raising Arizona (1987)
A genial soul just trying to stay out of prison and keep his child-obsessed wife, Ed (Holly Hunter), happy, Hi is the doleful pivot at the centre of the Coen's best comedy. The pair's sheer exuberance at being behind the camera – it was three years since they shot their feature debut, Blood Simple – contrasted with their protagonist's struggle to do the right thing. Like many of their saps, Hi appears to draw problems to him, in this case including a pair of escaped convicts (John Goodman and William Forsythe) who steal the baby that Hi previously stole for Ed.

Memorable line: “I'll be taking these Huggies and whatever cash ya got,” Hi tells a convenience store clerk as part of a family-orientated robbery.

Barton Fink (John Turturro)
Barton Fink (1991)

A 1930s New York City playwright just enjoying his first success, a pious working class tale called Bare Ruined Choirs, Barton Fink makes the mistake of signing for the movies, relocating to Los Angeles where his maniacal studio overseer (Michael Lerner) assigns to him to write a wrestling flick for Wallace Beery. His subsequent writers block becomes the stuff of nightmares, as the awkward, maladjusted writer staggers around a city where he plainly doesn't belong amidst traveling salesmen who are killers, alcoholic authors and less than impressed police officers.

Memorable line:
Being mocked in public he declares with genuine belief, “I'm a writer, you monsters! I create! I create for a living! I'm a creator! I am a creator!”

Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy)
Fargo (1996)
Each Coen brothers patsy has a failing that's responsible for their downfall. Some are idiots, others overly accommodating, while in the case of car salesman turned criminal Jerry Lundegaard it's ambition that's his Achilles heel. Desperate to get out from under the suffocating grip of his father-in-law (Harve Presnell), Jerry arranges for a pair of criminals to kidnap his wife, believing he can use the ransom to pay off his debts and set himself up. But his criminal plottings fare as badly as his business ventures, with a pregnant sheriff (France McDormand, Joel Coen's wife of 25 years) starting to unwind his plan as his jolly veneer fragments. (Note: Steve Buscemi's criminal makes a strong case for holding this slot, since he ends up being put through a woodchipper, but he was asking for it).

Memorable line: “You're darn tooting!” One of many Minnesota sayings that Jerry uses to mask his panic.


Donny Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi)
The Big Lebowski (1998)

The modest voice on a bowling team torn between the ultimate slacker, unemployed acid flashback casualty The Dude (Jeff Bridges), and a combative, gun toting Vietnam War veteran, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), Donny is the most gentle of Coen brothers patsies; he just really wants to bowl. Always asking the clarifying question that Walter's rants require, but only ever receiving the reply of “shut the f--- up, Donny”, he is the audience surrogate in an enduring cult classic and one of the few Coen characters you wish had a better outcome.

Memorable line:
“Are these the Nazis, Walter?” Donny asks after another evening of ten pin bowling ends with a flaming car and three annoyed German nihilists waiting in the parking lot.


Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton)
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

As saps goes, Ed Crane was a shifty one. In this curious, existential take on the noir tradition, he's a barber looking to leverage his way into the dry-cleaning business, as you do, and while he may not say much he's not above a touch of blackmail and some double dealing. Played with laconic gravitas and a face etched from stone by Billy Bob Thornton, Ed refuses what's offered to him and schemes for what he can't have. The film is the bleakest of Coen brothers comedies and not even the prospect of the electric chair can rouse their anti-hero.

Memorable line:
“I was a ghost. I didn't see anyone. No one saw me. I was the barber.”

Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt)
Burn After Reading (2008)

The confident idiot is a specialty of the Coen's and they don't get more confident, or idiotic, than personal trainer Chad Feldheimer, who comes across the memoir of permanently enraged CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) and believes he and his co-conspirator, Linda (McDormand again), can sell it to the highest bidder. Bounding around, sucking on various juice extracts and riding his bicycle to criminal assignations, Chad is a comic puppet who naturally – for the Coen brothers – has his strings cut in a particularly brutal manner. He was a real loss to the personal training fraternity.

Memorable line:
“Osbourne Cox? I thought you might be worried… about the security… of your shit.”