The Coens’ return to comedy is a gift to the genre, but we wonder if they belong in more serious fare.
The Coens returning to comedy – as noted on these pages Tuesday – is a good thing. There’s no two ways about it, it just is. Theirs are comedies of bleak, black matter; ones filled with losers and sleaze-balls; with deranged nuts; with men and women in way over their head. Hollywood’s pall of bromances, body-swaps and Adam Sandler vehicles has clouded the comedy genre for too long, has taken it away from any form of classicism and rendered it dead in the water. It’s dead but floating, floating on the immense revenue that aforementioned triptych somehow manage to consistently generate. The Coens, with Hail Caesar, will look to stunt that growth, and that can only be a good thing.
When the comedy is a side-act to the main drama, these are the films which truly showcase the greatness of the Coen brothers
Is comedy where their true brilliance lies, though? Because after re-watching Inside Llewyn Davis, this week released on home video, I’m not convinced it is. And whilst it’s worth mentioning that every Coens film is, in some way, a comedy (or at least pertains to comedic elements), the fact remains that there are films of theirs in which the comedy is a side-act to the main drama, is used to punctuate the film – respite, if you will. And these are the films which truly showcase the greatness of the duo, which elevate them into the echelons of genius filmmaking.
Take Inside Llewyn Davis, which might just be their greatest picture. That too, has its funny moments (quite a lot, in fact), but for the most part it’s not a comedy. What it is instead is one of the greatest examples of artistic struggle ever presented on screen. On the surface, non-admirers may see the film as slight in terms of any wider importance – to them it is a little story about a singer who can’t quite make it – but look deeper. Look at that ending for example. There’s Llewyn, bloodied and beaten outside The Gaslight, literally in the gutter whilst, inside, a then-unknown artist, silhouetted so that we get only a glimpse of him, starts to sing. This is 1961 and the singer is Bob Dylan.
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A year later Dylan would release his eponymous debut and, a year after that, his epochal Freewheelin’ LP (the cover of which is said to inspire the whole look of Inside Llewyn Davis), as he stepped up, unwittingly, to helm the greatest and most important cultural revolution of all time. The questions this small detail raise are significant: Will Llewyn, perhaps the quintessential Coens loser (though not in the derogative sense), catch the crest of Dylan’s wave, or will he, as we suspect, just miss out? Will his art prevail and allow him to be part of said revolution, or is he destined to be just another nearly-man, just another supremely talented artist whose circumstances ensure that they can never rise above them?
It’s the Coens’ overtly serious fare, like Inside Llewyn Davis, that truly stands as their crowning achievements in cinema
Do the final words of the film – the simple but effective “au revoir” – signal Llewyn saying goodbye to his life as a nobody, or his music? This is the Coens being the Coens and then some: taking their ever-present loser character and using him as an embodiment of the artistic struggle. Here then, is the level they best operate on. Their straight up comedies are damn fine movies, some of them even great pictures in their own right (think The Big Lebowski), but it’s their overtly serious fare like Inside Llewyn Davis and the frame-for-frame perfect No Country for Old Men that truly stand as their crowning achievements in cinema.
Then of course, there are the films of theirs that blur the line a little more. Films like Fargo and A Serious Man. (The former is as dark as you can get, but, in places, laugh out loud funny, whereas the latter is wince-inducing to the point of hilarity, whilst always still fairly sombre and heart-breaking.) It’s testament to the talent of the brothers that they can accrue so many facets of emotion in a single film, so there really is little to complain about here, but it does seem like after a big ‘serious’ picture comes a comedy – The Big Lebowski followed Fargo, Burn After Reading came after No Country and Hail Caesar will succeed Inside Llewyn Davis.
Perhaps then, the straight comedies are a chance for the Coens to experiment a bit more, to have a bit more fun, to indulge in a passion project like A Serious Man, a film quoted as being “the film you get to make after winning an Oscar”. Either way though, pretty much everything they touch turns to gold, so I guess it doesn’t necessarily matter what genre they decide to go all Midas on. My preference would be for a more serious kind of film, that’s all. Gimme Llewyn Davis over The Dude any day.
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Featured image: CBS Films/StudioCanal
Inset image: Miramax Films/Paramount Vantage