Bright Lights Film Journal

Brothers in Cynicism

Every time a new film by the Coen brothers comes out, I dread having to hear from the same old so-and-so’s who can’t bear to slog through the Coens’ peculiar brand of pessimism. The words “bleak” and “cynical” often pepper their reviews rather liberally, along with some gasp of regret that the brothers don’t seem to have much sympathy for their characters. Jonathan Rosenbaum called their style “pop nihilism”, and not in a positive sense. Before the release of their newest film, A Serious Man, I could practically hear them sharpening their claws.

As a die-hard fan of the Coen brothers, it’s not so much the predictability of these reactions that irks me, but the general unapproachability of it as a critical argument. Dismissing the Coens as cynics makes as much sense as dismissing Frank Capra as naive: both are true, of course, but neither one is grounds for belittling the quality of their work.

Much of it boils down whether or not someone “gets” the Coens. Even if you understand where they’re coming from and what they’re getting at, if you don’t have, at some subconscious level, something akin to their dark outlook on life, their films will almost certainly be off-putting, unsatisfactory, and pointless. Joe Morgenstern used the word “repellent” in his review of A Serious Man to describe the characters the Coens had written, but it aptly describes his attitude towards the whole film and the Coens’ entire oeuvre.

What’s so perplexing is that many of these critics seem to think it’s a failing on the Coens’ part that they have never gotten over this cynicism. Sometimes people call them “juvenile” and sigh: ‘Oh, when will the Coens grow up?’ As if this were a dark, teenage phase they never developed past, the filmic equivalent of a high school sophomore’s black eye-liner and lip piercings. Maybe the Coens, like myself, have just never witnessed anything that suggests that the world might not be such an awful place after all, that people really are good at heart, that life does have some grand and noble purpose. More optimistic veins of thought are certainly nicer, but it’s not as if anybody can help being a cynic.

There’s a lot to be said for artists who are comfortable and secure enough with their own philosophical leanings to not feel the need to try and sugar coat any unpleasantness. Even if you accept that the Coens are antisocial juveniles – and there’s no real good reason you should – then you at least have to grant that they’re honest. It would be nearly impossible for any other filmmaker to fake the cynicism that the Coens pull off with total sincerity. Many of the critics who denounce such pessimistic ways often say that they wish the brothers’ technical prowess could be put to better use, but what better use for an artist’s skills could there be than to create works that communicate to others the way they see the world?

To watch A Serious Man – their most morally sophisticated work – is to feel what it’s like to be Joel or Ethan Coen, to see the world as a pointless series of endless sufferings and inconveniences, surrounded by insufferable buffoons and irrational cretins (a sensation I’m rather familiar with, and, I assume, so are many others). This is not a world of their making. This is the world they live in. If David Denby really did think A Serious Man was “hell to sit through”, I can’t imagine what he’d think of sitting through an entire lifetime of it.

As a western New York Gentile from the 1980s, I have no overt connection to the 1967 Jewish Minnesota suburb of A Serious Man, but I feel a taut psychological bond to the intellectual frustration, the passive misanthropy, the hopeless irony that permeates its every scene, a bond expressed principally through laughter. Where critics like Denby see a film that dehumanizes life and drains it of meaning, I see a film that structures the horrible train wreck of life into a fine, sharp joke.

Perhaps I’m also an emotionally-stunted creep, but there’s something close to genius in anyone who can make humor out of pure unhappiness. Life is miserable, you’ll never get the answers you want, death is just around the corner, and isn’t that just hysterical?