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  • The Whole Durn Human Comedy: Life According to the Coen Brothers by Joseph McBride
  • Darren J. Valenta (bio)
The Whole Durn Human Comedy: Life According to the Coen Brothers. By Joseph McBride. London: Anthem Press, 2022. 118 pp.

Significant art is provocative. It drives the spectator to thought or action otherwise deemed too costly. This foundational tension between creator and consumer inevitably leads to dueling interpretations of challenging artistic artifacts. The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, epitomize the artist as provocateur. They use their work to interrogate the humanity of their characters and play at the intersections of drama, comedy, and violence. In short, as Joseph McBride suggests, the Coens “recognize that the quest for answers in life is all we have to hold onto besides the saving grace of laughter and that artists . . . are not obligated to provide answers, only to raise provocative questions” (40). The Coens challenge the status quo while making the audience squirm and ponder. Predictably, not all audience [End Page 307] members, moviegoers, and critics alike enjoy the confrontation. The Coens embrace this tension, though, refusing to decode or defang their work. Their dedication to an idiosyncratic approach has garnered them a reputation as “aloof and haughty,” among other things (1). McBride, therefore, devotes his book to countering the most common criticisms of their work, aiming to offer a clearer perspective of this prolific pair of filmmakers. In so doing, he exposes their calculated use of humor to critique American life.

McBride uses common criticisms of the Coens as a starting point for most of the chapters in his study, pinning them to the top of the page before methodically dissecting the weaknesses of each. The introduction addresses the Coens’s reticence when it comes to explaining their work in interviews. McBride notes that their most marketable and controversial trait is “their audacious blurring of the thin lines between comedy and violence” (1). Their work is often unpredictable because of this tendency, which can leave critics and audiences perplexed or dissatisfied. McBride argues that a significant portion of their work is misunderstood because of the dissensus about its quality and cultural impact. The brothers contribute to this dissensus by refusing explanations and embracing their role as cultural irritants.

Chapter 1 centers on a complaint about the Coen brothers’ seemingly pessimistic view of the world, which critics maintain is reflected in “their tendency toward extreme visual and verbal stylization” (10) across their movies, including their “dizzying changes of tone, their sarcastic approach to characters and stories, [and] their supposed lack of warmth and empathy” (10). But McBride maintains that the Coens make these stylistic choices so as to differentiate their work from others, an increasingly difficult undertaking as the continued success of major blockbuster movies pushes artists like the Coens even further to the margins (12–13).

In chapter 2, McBride contends with a complaint about the Coens’s penchant for blending elements of different genres. McBride focuses on the changes of tone in Coen films, observing that audiences and reviewers do not like abrupt shifts in tone because they “like to feel emotionally ahead of a story or intellectually superior to it” (18). In this way, the Coen brothers once again embrace their role as provocateurs: ultimately, “they love to mix up audience expectations of genres, playing with conventions and reversing them in sophisticated ways that make us ponder our mistaken assumptions along with those of the hapless protagonists” (17). The brothers’ calling card [End Page 308] remains their ability to juxtapose stylistic and narrative tropes to say something meaningful about human nature.

Chapters 3 and 4 deal with complaints about the Coens’s nihilism and their use of caricature to avoid taking the most harrowing aspects of life more seriously. As McBride points out, though, “literary caricature . . . is amply recognized as a valid form of mocking human vice and vanity” (25), a historically grounded literary tradition of skewering American life through absurdity and surrealism. Often, the Coens’s use of caricature, which borders on the cartoonish, as critique serves to solidify their worldview, undercutting the claim that the brothers lack any religious or moral principles. Despite their reluctance to reveal their intentions...