Excerpted from McBride’s newly published critical study, The Whole Durn Human Comedy: Life According to the Coen Brothers (Anthem Press, March 2022), with the kind permission of the author.
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What makes the Coen Bros. the Coen Bros. is often misunderstood.
For that reason and others, the filmmaking team is often underappreciated. Ethan and Joel Coen have helped provoke this by delighting in their unpredictability. Their most recent unpredictable move has been to take at least a temporary break from collaborating while Joel ventured on his own with The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021). But in their work as a filmmaking team from 1984 through 2018, when they made a culminating work of sorts, the Western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coens, like Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick, have tended to make each of their films as different from the last as possible. They freely mix genres in ways that often seem surprising or shocking, as does their blending of comedy and drama. Their most identifiable trait – and most marketable as well as most controversial – is their audacious blurring of the thin lines between comedy and violence. Like Welles and Kubrick, the brothers have many idiosyncrasies of style and obsessive themes that audiences and reviewers have come to recognize, but the unique mélange of styles and subject matter that characterizes their work resists easy definition.
The Coens have many admirers and critical defenders, and many of us believe they represent some of the best of modern American filmmaking. The fact that, together or separately, they have kept making such personal, idiosyncratic films, usually in defiance of conventional film industry wisdom, is a remarkable achievement in this age of blockbusters and other corporate standardization. But to some extent, considering the level of their achievement, they have been ill-served by critics and historians, whose fitful attempts to analyze them have often demonstrated more befuddlement than insight.
My approach to a critical study of the Coen Bros. in The Whole Durn Human Comedy is to address and (mostly) rebut the main objections that have been made about their work. I’ve placed these often-heard complaints at the heads of the first seven chapters before going on to discuss The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in detail. They serve as provocative points of argument to lead into what I hope is more nuanced discussion of various aspects of their work. These recurring complaints have contributed to the lack of definition the Coens tend to suffer from in assessments of their work, whether among film reviewers in the mainstream media and film magazines or in the motley array of books about them. Pondering the reservations many people still have about the Coen Bros. and offering counterarguments will, I hope, bring these idiosyncratic artists into a much clearer perspective partly by defining what they are not, which helps show us who they are. One of the most contentious points about the Coens is the often-sarcastic attitude they take toward their characters and the question of whether or not they indulge in caricature out of a sense of cruelty.
The complaint: The Coens engage in too much caricaturing of people, including ethnic caricaturing. The filmmakers are so cynical they have a lack of empathy for their characters, often viewing them with contempt and making glib jokes about harrowing aspects of life. Their penchant for ethnic humor is offensive and not politically correct in these days when we are so enlightened after millennia of backwardness about race and ethnicity.
Caricature (“someone or something that is very exaggerated in a funny or foolish way”) is a highly regarded branch of the graphic arts, and it also has produced some of our finest works of literature. From Bruegel to George Grosz and R. Crumb, as well as Thomas Nast and Herblock and their fellow editorial cartoonists, visual caricaturists have memorably illuminated the flaws in the human condition by portraying people as grotesque and exaggerating their flaws. And the long tradition of literary caricature from Aristophanes to Voltaire to Swift, from Mark Twain to Kurt Vonnegut, is amply recognized as a valid form of mocking human vice and vanity. Aristotle wrote in his Poetics, “Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life.” And yet filmmakers who engage in caricature are often severely criticized, perhaps because film is a photographic medium, and audiences not only tend to want feel-good flattery but also traditionally have to come to expect some semblance of what is considered “realism,” even though that is an arbitrary construct changing drastically from period to period.
American filmmaking today is generally a highly unrealistic mode of storytelling or, more often, spectacle, not only because of the craze for CGI, which makes most large-scale films live-action cartoons, but also in their determinedly mindless escapism from the unpleasant realities of the twenty-first century. The motto of modern American movie audiences could be Blanche’s outcry in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, “I don’t want realism. I want magic!” So it is something of a paradox that the rap against the Coen Bros. often centers around their penchant for caricature, their love of grotesquerie, and their fascination with venality. The brothers have little interest in “realism” of any kind, preferring a stylized, exaggerated take on the world, and their viewpoint on the human race is as jaundiced as Swift’s. The flamboyant, sharply drawn nature of their characters, the delight the Coens take in the idiosyncrasies of their actors, and their sheer zaniness are among their principal artistic virtues, but those qualities nevertheless make some reviewers (perhaps more than audience members) uneasy. The Coens acknowledge the lovably human frailty of their actors by including an intimate scene in Burn After Reading (2008) of Frances McDormand (Joel’s wife) forthrightly exposing her physical imperfections while her character is undergoing an examination for plastic surgery and saying, “I would be laughed out of Hollywood.” The Coens’ tendency toward cartoonishness in portraying people is dissimilar from that of the CGI superhero adventure fantasies that dominate Hollywood filmmaking today; the Coens instead show how real life resembles cartoons, often very dark ones, and that insight can make viewers uncomfortable. People often condemn what disturbs them, even though art should be unsettling.
Caricaturists in a dramatic medium such as filmmaking have an extra burden in that their work, unlike a single-panel cartoon or an elaborate painting, takes place over a longer period of sitting time. Caricaturing people can become tiresome and irritatingly shallow if it is unrelenting for ninety minutes or two hours, as happens in lesser Coen Bros. movies, most mind-numbingly in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). That Capra pastiche is about the misadventures of a “grade-A dingdong,” a naif played by Tim Robbins who becomes the pawn of unscrupulous New York businessmen in the late 1950s. The film becomes ridiculous because it misses the point of Frank Capra’s portrayal of similar characters, such as James Stewart’s Senator Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), of whom Claude Rains’s senior Senator Paine astutely observes, “This boy’s honest, not stupid.” At their best, however, the Coens are masters at modulating the effect of caricature by making their characters complex and mixing comedy with drama and violence into a volatile compound that compels our attention. Their films are seldom just funny romps but usually are interwoven with various forms of suffering. That is perhaps the major reason caricature seems to trouble people in Coen Bros. films. Aristotle pointed to this problem of blurring modes of portraying people:
Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type – not, however, in the full sense of the word “bad,” the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain.
The Coens’ films certainly do imply pain, and yet they are often able to interweave it with hilarity in seamless ways that display breathtaking skill and originality.
Rarely has there been a character in films so simultaneously ludicrous and tormented as Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) in Fargo (1996), and his foolishness is the direct cause of his and others’ suffering. Jerry never achieves the nobility of a tragic character in Aristotelian terms – that would entail his recognizing his own flaws with self-lacerating clarity – so he is essentially a comic creation. But after we are seduced by the early sections of Fargo into laughing at Jerry’s machinations, we are increasingly confronted with the awful realization of how dangerous such stupidity can be. When the similarly dimwitted Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) in No Country for Old Men (2007) comes across a drug deal gone murderously wrong while he is out hunting in the Texas countryside, he can’t help picking up a briefcase full of money. He soon finds himself in an inescapable “world of pain,” to borrow one of the favorite expressions of the perpetually inflamed Vietnam War veteran Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) in The Big Lebowski (1998). The Coens offer us a veritable “league of morons,” to quote the disgraced and embittered Central Intelligence Agency officer Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), who is bedeviled by bumbling opportunists trying to exploit his misplaced memoirs in Burn After Reading (when a Soviet official to whom they try to sell them scorns the manuscript as “drivel,” McDormand’s character thinks he is saying “dribble”). The Coens’ parade of characters represent walking vices and weaknesses and yet in their very ordinariness are mirrors of our own human tendencies to go for what looks like an easy score, a quick solution to the mundane but intractable problems of daily existence.
Part of what makes the Coens’ mockery of their characters enjoyable, rather than the mere expressions of contempt their critics claim, is the brothers’ love of actors, especially the ones they use over and over again, such as McDormand, Goodman, John Turturro, and Steve Buscemi. The actors are so appealing in their quirkiness, including their perfectly cast physical oddities, and the Coens revel so much in their delivery of hilariously ornate dialogue that the appallingly stupid or violent behavior of their characters becomes more palatable to watch. I could cite hundreds of examples of colorful Coen Bros. dialogue – such as “the Dude abides,” from The Big Lebowski; “You’re a sick fuck, Fink,” from Barton Fink (1991); Hi (Nicolas Cage) confiding in Raising Arizona (1987), “the doctor explained that her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase”; or 1958 newspaper reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) declaring of Hula Hoops in Hudsucker, “Finally there would be a thing that brought everybody in America together – even if it kept them apart, spatially.” Another of my favorite examples of their gift for dialogue is an outburst by the obsessive-compulsive Walter in Lebowski. When his friends casually dismiss the rules at a bowling match, he rants, “This is not ’Nam. This is bowling. There are rules. . . . HAS THE WHOLE WORLD GONE CRAZY? AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO GIVES A SHIT ABOUT THE RULES?”
As eccentric and often grotesque as their characters are, these are Everyman figures we enjoy seeing as mirrors of our own temptations toward vice and crime, even if we would never consciously imagine emulating their antisocial behavior. The films are cautionary tales of stupidity and venality gone ruinously awry. I usually find stupidity depressing rather than funny, but the Coens make it endearingly human. The humor often comes out of a classical source of comedy – a sense of resigned desperation about the flaws and follies of the human race. As Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tells his young deputy in No Country for Old Men about his dealings with psychopaths, “I laugh myself sometimes. There ain’t a whole lot else you can do.”
Many of the Coens’ characters, on the other hand, have the saving grace of innocence. Such varied figures as The Dude (Jeff Bridges) in The Big Lebowski; Ed Tom Bell; Brainerd (Minnesota) police chief Marge Gunderson (McDormand) in Fargo; elderly Mississippi landlady Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) in The Ladykillers (2004); and beleaguered physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) in A Serious Man (2009) use their innocence as a shield as they try to navigate the perils of the corrupt world around them, like Jimmy Conlin’s compassionate chain-gang guard in Preston Sturges’s 1941 Sullivan’s Travels, a major influence on the Coens. Not that these Coen characters are perfect people, and not all of them are naive, but they radiate a goodness, a beatific quality, that enables them to survive danger and usually prevail, except in the case of the despondent Ed Tom and the unfortunate Larry, who is doomed by his very existence as a symbolic figure of beleaguered humanity.
The Coens attempted to pull off an improbable romantic comedy between two wealthy and cynical Hollywood denizens in Intolerable Cruelty (2003), a celebrated divorce lawyer/playboy (George Clooney) and a gold digger who marries rich men only to fleece them (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The story (by three other writers, two of whom collaborated with the Coens on the screenplay) seems like one that might have appealed to Billy Wilder if he had lived to make a film about sexual mores in the disenchanted world of 2003. But the film’s attempted pivot from corruption to genuine feeling is not handled by the Coens with the surehanded finesse of Wilder’s 1960 classic The Apartment. Wilder was a genuine romantic but not a sentimentalist. The Coens avoid sentimentality but are no romantics, even if they are, to some extent, extremely guarded idealists. Their convoluted plotting in Intolerable Cruelty about how to evade ironclad prenuptial agreements is a trenchant commentary on the mercenary nature of marriage and the tenuousness of trust in modern relationships. But it allows little breathing room for the characters to express any kind of viable affection for each other or to earn it from us when they do start to seem more human. This terminally jaded couple utterly lack the guilelessness that makes Marge or The Dude genuinely endearing from our first encounters with them, and Intolerable Cruelty sinks along with the couple’s feeble attempts to overcome their mutual and well-grounded distrust.
The Coens’ fondness for situating their stories within meta-narrative frameworks helps set up the innocence of some of their characters by having other people remark on it with wonderment. Sam Elliott’s cowboy narrator, The Stranger, telling us about The Dude at the opening of The Big Lebowski, draws a careful moral distinction between the recklessness of a society and an individual who can still show true grit: “Now this story I’m about to unfold took place back in the early nineties – just about the time of our conflict with Sad’m and the Eye-rackies. I only mention it ’cause sometimes there’s a man – I won’t say a hee-ro, ’cause what’s a hee-ro? – but sometimes there’s a man.” This calculatedly offhand praise echoes Marlene Dietrich’s famous lines in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?” In The Ladykillers, Marva Munson says admiringly of her late husband, whose portrait watches over her in the living room, “He was some kind of man.” The Coens’ characters, like Dietrich’s Tanya and the filmmakers themselves, are uncomfortable with the kind of inflated rhetoric that would elevate anyone higher than that substantial accolade.
Let the Coens have a chance to refute the notion that drawing comedy (or drama) from characters’ weaknesses equals contempt: Joel says,
It is true, most of the characters in our movies are pretty unpleasant – losers or lunkheads or both. But we’re also very fond of those characters, because you don’t usually see stories based around those kind of people. We’re not interested in burly superhero types. . . . We feel a strong emotional connection to those characters, we’re not laughing down at them. . . . No, really, you love all your characters, even the ridiculous ones. You have to on some level; they’re your weird creations in some kind of way. I don’t even know how you approach the process of conceiving the characters if in a sense you hated them. It’s just absurd.
The film industry today suffers from an obsession to make characters “likable,” for fear of losing any part of their audience, even though many of the characters in classic films (think Bogart) are antiheroes, severely flawed and not likable in a simplistic way. The Coens use Brechtian “alienation effects” to provide distanciation from their characters as a way of making us think more critically about them and their social situations. Defining what he called Verfremdungseffekt, the “estrangement effect” or “making strange,” Bertolt Brecht wrote that it means “playing in such a way that the audience was hindered from simply identifying itself with the characters in the play. Acceptance or rejection of their actions and utterances was meant to take place on a conscious plane, instead of, as hitherto, in the audience’s subconscious.” Joel Coen notes, “It’s almost axiomatic that a movie’s principal characters have to be sympathetic and that the movie has to supply moral uplift. People like it. But it’s not interesting to us. You’re not supposed to sympathize with Gabriel Byrne in Miller’s Crossing , or with Barton Fink [John Turturro].” Joel concedes, “People do find that distance chilly, or cold around the edges.”
The question of mockery takes on another inflection when the Coens make fun of ethnic stereotypes, as they do throughout their work. Often people can’t tell the difference between a film that includes an ethnic stereotype for purposes of commenting on it satirically or dramatically and a film that itself is stereotypical or racist. The Coens resemble John Ford in foregrounding characters’ ethnicity for social commentary and causing controversy for doing so. When Ford was working, it was unusual for an American director to explore people’s roots with genuine interest; for him, ethnic background was part of the essential data about a character. Even if Ford’s characterizations sometimes fail to rise above stereotypes and if some of his ethnic humor grates on comedically challenged people today, I usually find his reflections of the diversity of American society refreshing, especially since they come from a time when most Hollywood films were all-white. His ethnic humor is generally knowing, engaging, and heartwarming because it stems from fellow-feeling and not derision or cruelty.
In today’s America, ethnicity is more openly discussed but even more fraught with peril as a subject for filmmakers. Like Ford, the Coens don’t look the other way at the question of ethnicity. Doing so is the safe route for filmmakers and others today who are afraid of the specter of “political correctness,” a term popularized by George H. W. Bush in the 1980s to stigmatize liberals and then taken up by liberals with unconscious irony as a weapon to defend themselves against perceived deviations from social norms du jour. The Coens sprinkle ethnic slurs of one kind or another, antiquated or modern, throughout their dialogue. They make overt fun of political correctness in The Big Lebowski when The Dude complains about “this Chinaman who peed on my rug.” Walter Sobchak, his foul-mouthed lout of a friend who likes to remind people he has converted to Judaism, self-righteously declares, “This Chinaman is not the issue! I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude.” Stumblingly trying to echo Bush’s rationale for the Gulf War, “This aggression will not stand. . . . This will not stand!” (a statement shown on television earlier in the film), Walter goes on, “Across this line you do not, uh – and also, Dude, Chinaman is not the preferred, uh … Asian-American. Please.” By putting that piety in the mouth of a deranged bully, the Coens are sharply criticizing the hypocrisy of the curse of political correctness.
That censorious attitude, and its timid way of avoiding frank talk about social issues, is, as the Coens recognize, terribly limiting, even destructive, for an artist. Much of the news and entertainment media today, as well as academia, are intimidated by such attitudes and practice “cancel culture” (as Barack Obama dubbed it), the latest form of blacklisting, reminiscent of the previous Hollywood blacklist during the postwar Red Scare. Rather than fostering greater enlightenment on today’s urgent racial issues and other social problems, these repressive attitudes have fostered a new wave of censorship in various media. This is partly an attempt to limit the subversive ability of comedy and satire to skewer social dilemmas, as the Coens do throughout their work. Academia in particular is ground zero for political correctness, which has prompted the misguided belief that students need to be protected from the problems of the real world, hence the campaign to provide “trigger warnings” for anyone whose sensibilities might be offended by books, films, or speech. But criticizing or satirizing racism is not possible unless its existence is candidly acknowledged and its stench ventilated. The Coens clearly have no interest in offering “trigger warnings”; to the contrary, they revel in triggering all kinds of reactions with their films in their search for artistic illumination of the warped society in which we live.
So the Coens make fun of ethnic divisions and treat their many nonwhite characters with unabashed recognition of their backgrounds and dialects, the same kind of recognition they give to their wide range of white characters, sparing no one from mockery. They are equal-opportunity mockers. When Ethan was asked in 1998, “You seem to play with ethnicity and prejudice a lot in your stories and films. Why do you do that?” he responded,
Well, nobody does in movies, but that’s because movies are really expensive to do, so studios really feel – probably with some reason – that they have to pander to people’s sensitivities. They feel they can’t offend anybody with a $60 million investment in the movie. It just gets kind of dull in movies – nobody is specific ethnically because nobody wants to offend anybody. We’ve never felt constrained by it in the movies that we do because our movies are sort of a little off the beaten track anyway. . . . If you want to make a character specific, his ethnicity is part of who he is. . . . You want to make characters who are real, have some validity, have some light, have some spark, have some life to them. . . . [And] it seems natural and self-evident to me, although some people are, as you suggest, a little more nervous about it. It’s a nervousness I just don’t share.
I’ve been there myself. I recall being bothered initially by the Midwestern dialect humor of Fargo (“Hon? Got the growsheries. – Thank you, hon. How’s Fargo?” – “Yah, real good”), which I resented as mockery of the kinds of people I grew up with in the Midwest. But to my surprise, when I visited my relatives in Wisconsin soon after the film came out, I found they were delighted not only that people like them were shown on-screen but also that their speech patterns were reproduced accurately. Now I can recognize the dialect humor in Fargo for the amiable joshing it is and take the pleasure in it that the Coens intended. They love to explore the vagaries of all kinds of regional dialects, giving full rein to the colorful Southern lingo in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and The Ladykillers, including the subset of African American dialect in the latter film; Irish immigrant and Jewish inflections in Miller’s Crossing; Los Angeles verbal laxity and stoner argot in The Big Lebowski; hypocritical Hollywood jargon in Barton Fink and Hail, Caesar! (2016); droll Southwestern drawling in Raising Arizona, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit (2010); and in A Serious Man even an extended prologue in Yiddish, set in an Eastern Europe shtetl. The purpose of that mysterious prologue, in which a Jewish peasant woman (Yelena Shmulenson) stabs a dybbuk her husband has innocently invited into their home, seems to be, as she says, “God has cursed us.” The protagonist of A Serious Man and his people are faced with irrational persecution by forces beyond worldly control (the film also abounds in the use of Hebrew, and the first word of English is not heard until more than eight minutes into the film).
The Coens’ fine ear for dialogue blends hilarious malaprops and regionalisms with elaborate satire of clichés of speech; their characters are often foolishly regurgitating verbiage their scattered brains have picked up somewhere from their TV viewing and limited reading and their social milieus, while sounding endearingly pretentious in their misuse of the English language. This knowing attention to regional and cultural differences in speech is one of the major pleasures of the Coens’ work, brought to perfection by cast members who respond splendidly to the challenge of elaborate monologues and complex, rhythmical cross talk, in a pattern of dialogue that McDormand has aptly compared to music. Sometimes the Coens also draw humor from taciturnity, such as with the maddeningly silent hitman Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) in Fargo; Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), the barber who paradoxically doesn’t talk much in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001); or the tongue-tied cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in Hail, Caesar! who is hilariously coached by the despondent director of a Lubitschean comedy, Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), to get him to say, “Would it were so simple.”
When the Coens occasionally falter with their handling of dialogue, it can seriously damage a film, as happens in True Grit. Jeff Bridges unfortunately uses his role as Rooster Cogburn to parody John Wayne’s equally unfortunate (but Oscar-winning) self-parody in the 1969 film version. Bridges drunkenly mumbles through his beard so unintelligibly, like Gabby Hayes, that his dialogue becomes what Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles calls “authentic frontier gibberish.” The problem is compounded by the inability of the inexperienced teenaged actress Hailee Steinfield, as vengeful Mattie Ross, to make sense of much of her elaborately stylized period dialogue (largely drawn from Charles Portis’s finely wrought seriocomic novel), despite Steinfeld’s eloquent rightness for the role in her appearance and behavior. These rare lapses throw the Coens’ usual brilliance with actors into relief and make us realize how much we relish their rich and expertly handled play with the English language.
Ethnic or regional humor in the Coens’ work is usually endearing, in my view, because you sense their underlying affection for the characters. Viewers who don’t share that sense, the ones who consider the Coens condescending to their characters and object to mocking people in a story, would tend to disagree. It’s partly a matter of taste and how much leeway a viewer will grant a film in prodding his or her own sensitivities. Some viewers find A Serious Man offensive because most of its Jewish characters other than Larry Gopnik are portrayed so unpleasantly, even though they are no worse than most of the Coens’ other characters. Village Voice reviewer Ella Taylor lamented “the great existential comedy that A Serious Man might have become, if it wasn’t buried beneath an avalanche of Ugly Jew iconography.” After providing a lengthy catalog of characters to support her claim, she argues that the “visual impact of all these warty, unappetizing Jews (even the movie’s obligatory anti-Semite looks handsome by comparison) carries A Serious Man into the realm of the truly vicious. . . . We’re being invited to share in [the Coens’] disgust. And God help the rube who can’t take the joke.” A colleague of mine told me, “It should be shown to Jewish audiences, but not to other audiences,” implying that the film is a shonda for the goyim.
At least on the surface, A Serious Man is so grim, its humor so dark, that the people surrounding Larry, especially his wife and children, seem little more than figures of hostility or obtuseness. But there is a constant undercurrent of Jewish humor – of the gallows humor variety, a vein long mined by many Jewish comedians – that if we can feel it, invites viewers of any kind to share the sweet, gentle Larry’s bewilderment at the horrifying ways of the world. He is beset by the unfairness of his unrelenting persecution not only by the people around him but apparently also by the God he tries vainly to worship. The humor often sticks in our throats, as the Coens intend, and it is inextricable from their mournful view of the human condition as nearly hopeless and virtually irredeemable. The film’s closest approach to outright levity is the appalling but very human Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), the oleaginous paramour of Larry’s wife. The middle-aged Sy is so smarmy and patronizing to the man he is cuckolding, as well as such an unconventional choice for the ostensible sex object in a triangle about adultery, that he becomes as funny as he is uncomfortable to watch.
Set in 1967, the film seems especially personal to the Coens because it takes place in their hometown of Minneapolis and among the minority Jewish community in which they were raised. One could make the argument that in dealing with their own background, the Coens have more right than other filmmakers would to portray such characters harshly, just as I would do if I made a film portraying many of the Midwestern Irish Catholics I grew up with. As Ethan put it, “If a character is specifically Jewish, say, I don’t feel that I have to make him 100 percent attractive in order to appease people who would be satisfied by nothing less. And frankly, there are such people.”
Ethnic humor may sting, but it should do so for a purpose. In addition to their play with ethnic caricatures, including slurs as the Coens often do (though rarely in A Serious Man) helps express characters’ imbecility while reflecting social conditions in the societies where the films are set. It should be easy to realize that the Coens are not the ones making the ethnic slurs on-screen. But portraying characters’ ethnic traits as comical, or partly comical, puts the filmmakers on slipperier ground with audiences, since it is intended to shake up our preconceptions and challenge us to see through the characters’ differences to their common humanity. That the Coens don’t view humanity sentimentally is something you have to either accept or reject; if you don’t want to see the warmth that’s mingled with their mockery, you won’t. “Ambiguity is the home of the artist, the great artist,” writer-director Walter Hill remarks in the 2006 version of Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary Directed by John Ford.
The ambiguity in the Coens’ view of their characters in A Serious Man is expressed in Becoming Serious, an extra on the Blu-ray edition. Ethan recalls that some members of the Jewish community of Minneapolis were worried that the brothers might be planning to make fun of Jews and wondered if the film would be “good for the Jews,” as the common expression goes. Joel insists their view of the people in the film is “very affectionate,” and Ethan says mischievously, “It’s not like we would laugh at anybody”; they share a good chuckle over that. It’s a key to their outlook that they can be affectionate yet mocking at the same time.