The Sardonic Wit of the Cohen Brothers


After viewing the Cohen Brothers's 2009 sleeper A Serious Man, I wondered not for the first time what it was that made the Cohen's so unique? A Serious Man is another in a long string of films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Burn After Reading. These deeply satirical and symbolic films revel in their underlying messages, but never forget to make the movie entertaining. Burn After Reading parodies the spy genre expertly and is filled with dumb characters played by incredible actors. What so many missed in that film is what makes A Serious Man and OBWAT? both so fantastic, a full devotion to humor. 

A Serious Man ends with a massive twister coming right for the main character's son, just as he is about to pay back the bully who has been chasing him throughout the film. The twister arrives at the last second, interrupting the final minutes of the film to throw in yet another wrench. Forget trying to understand what this means and just appreciate the comedy of it; the whole film, in almost every scene the boy is in, he is trying to get his twenty dollars back from the school headmaster who confiscated it. Then, by a stroke of luck, it is returned, and just as he is about to hand the cash to the bully who has been chasing him for it, the twister is seen less than a mile away. I was cracking up.


Another scene in Burn After Reading, the iconic death of Brad Pitt's Chad. Shot point blank by an unsuspecting George Clooney in one of the funniest moments of the film, his death demonstrates just how stupid the characters in the film are. The Cohen brothers have shown a distinctly morbid sense of humor, almost always resulting in the death of major characters. Fargo has this scene (the woodchipper) as does Barton Fink (the whole ending), and that's not even mentioning the Cohen's latest, Hail, Caesar!, a satire if there ever was one. When the Cohen brothers do drama, they win awards. When they make comedies, the results are often more mixed, but they are routinely the more interesting films. Inside Llewyn Davis and No Country for Old Men are two of my favorites, but they feel lightyears away from something like Raising Arizona. One of the goofiest films the brothers have ever made, Raising Arizona involves robbery and baby snatching. While it's certainly less violent than other Cohen comedies, it has no less sardonic humor. Holly Hunter's Ed manipulates Nicolas Cage's H.I. into all kinds of terrible scenarios, all in the name of personal satisfaction. Throughout it all, the jokes are played straight, and almost never for big laughs. 

Consider one of the Cohen's best films, Inside Llewyn Davis. A serious and tragic tale of a folk musician struggling to get by after the death of his singing partner, it includes one of the Cohen brothers's favorite actors, John Goodman. His memorable role as a crippled traveler changes the entire mood of the film with a single grunt. As long as he is in frame, Llewyn is no longer the driving action, and Goodman takes command. His character doesn't joke, and his purpose is up for debate, but the mere fact that he is included for so long in a serious musical drama is its own brand of comedy the Cohen's have made their staple.