The Comedy of the Coen Brothers

There is a certain duality within every film written and directed by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. It is that yin and yang that makes their work so identifiable, even if few of their films could fit into the same category.  Every film in their repertoire has elements of humor. There is however, a fairly distinct line between what could be called their more comedic films and their more dramatic.  Below are brief descriptions of their films that would easily fit into the comedy mold.
 

Raising Arizona (1987)


Perhaps the Coen brothers?' second film is the first many fans remember seeing. The fantastic story of H.I. and Edwina Mcdonough, and their family growth strategy is at first glance a clear and straightforward comedy. Like all of the Coen brothers?' work the humor is layered. There are many laughs on the surface and plenty just beneath that makes multiple viewings all the more engaging. But what also becomes clear beyond the farcical slap stick and outrageous goings on, is that the story is an endearing look at a deeply flawed but sincere couple that decides that there is ?"simply too much love and beauty?" for just the two of them.
 

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)


To this day The Hudsucker Proxy is likely the most expensive of the Coen brothers?' films, but largely regarded as the least successful of their prodigious early work. However, like the others it stands up quite well to multiple viewings. ?"The Hud?" is full of the wonder and innocence of the pre-WW2 era and is often referred to as their homage to Frank Capra. Tim Robbins plays the imbecilic Norville Barnes who has recently graduated from his junior business college in Muncy, Indiana, and heads off to the big city to take on the future. What ensues is a blend of slapstick humor, fast dialog, corporate greed, and pure fantasy.
 

The Big Lebowski (1998)


Described by some as one of the funniest movies ever made, The Big Lebowski definitely demands to be seen more than once. The humor in the dialogue is almost overwhelming and is excellent for recitation, especially at the annual Lebowski fests that are held across the world. Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), self monikered as ?"the Dude?" is perhaps the laziest man in Los Angeles County, ?"which puts him in the running for laziest worldwide?".  Because of a mix up his living room rug is stolen. With the encouragement of his explosive bowling chum Walter Sobchack (John Goodman), the Dude reluctantly seeks compensation. This uncharacteristic, pro-activity on his part catalyses a plot that quickly grows beyond what the Dude was bargaining for. In the end it is a rich and textured buddy tale with one of the most appropriate soundtracks ever assembled. This is the Coen brothers?' film that has accumulated the largest cult following, and if you give it a second and third chance, it will most likely weasel its way into your allegiance as well.

O Brother Where art Thou (2000)


Not even a decade old, O Brother! Where art Thou already shows up regularly on Turner Classic Movies. Different from anything else before it or since, ?"O Brother!?" is the depression era Mississippi version of Homer?'s Odyssey. It could also be said this film marks a turning point in the Coen brothers?' catalog, introducing their first real superstar lead in George Clooney. The plot tracks three escaped chain gang members across the Delta region to hunt down a treasure before modernization washes it away forever. The setting is the old south USA and the dialogue and music presents it with zest and admiration. This film is definitely a comedy, but like all the Coen brothers?' films there is more below the surface. It is a story of morality, family, and spiritual revival and there is no shortage of laugh out loud hilarity.
 

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)


For Intolerable Cruelty, the Coen brothers teamed up again with George Clooney and bring in even more star power with Catherine-Zeta Jones. If strictly labeled, this film would be called a romantic comedy, but it is unlike the typical fare one would find in that category.  Miles (Clooney) is a highly successful divorce lawyer and Marilyn (Zeta-Jones) is a professional divorcee. They collide in Grant ? Stanwyck style and fall in love awkwardly over their shared view from the tower of the miserably successful.   The surface is slapstick laughter, the dialogue is sharp, and underneath there is an aura of hope for even the most confused and cynical.
 

The Lady Killers (2004)


Like O Brother, Where art Thou? before it there is heavy tone of spiritual reconciliation throughout The Lady Killers, although it is several degrees darker. Tom Hanks leads the cast as Professor G.H. Dor, an eccentric Edgar Allen Poe devotee, who has masterminded a heist of the local floating casino. A smorgasbord of characters make up his team that uses as its base of operation the basement of a local Church member, played perfectly by Irma P. Hall. This film has received the harshest reviews of any other Coen brothers film, and admittedly seems as if the balance got a little wobbly on the way to final cut. Regardless, there is still plenty to enjoy including the typical rich dialogue, slapstick laughs, and an engaging soundtrack.
 

Burn After Reading (2008)


The latest of the Coen brothers?' more comedic films is this star powered romp that straddles the line between eerie, disturbing, and hilarious. Of all the films included in this synopsis this is the most dualistic. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, and John Malkovich play self absorbed D.C. dwellers whose own inabilities to see reality lead them to darker and darker outcomes. And as bad as it seems, the viewer finds them self laughing. Is this a backhanded statement about the human condition, becoming apathetic to the moral failings that submerge us? Surely the Coen brothers would have a good chuckle at such a conclusion. 

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