The Whole Durn Human Comedy: Life According to the Coen Brothers

The Whole Durn Human Comedy: Life According to the Coen Brothers

By Joseph McBride

Anthem Film and Culture

A groundbreaking, incisive critical study of the Coen Bros., the quirky team of filmmaking brothers who delight in unsettling cinematic conventions and confounding audiences while raising disturbing questions about human nature.

PDF, 118 Pages


March 2022

£13.99, $16.95

EPUB, 118 Pages


March 2022

£13.99, $16.95

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About This Book

The Coen Bros. have attracted a wide following and have been rewarded with Oscars and other honors. Some of their films such as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men are cult favorites and box office hits. Yet this team of filmmaking brothers remains misunderstood in some critical circles, partly because, like John Ford, they mischievously refuse to explain themselves to interviewers, preferring to let their work speak for itself. Ethan and Joel Coen also delight in unsettling cinematic conventions and confounding audiences while raising disturbing questions about human nature.

Mixing film genres and styles, playing with narrative in postmodernist ways, the Coens’ films display shocking tonal shifts as they blend comedy and drama and, most controversially, comedy and violence. This potent mélange of themes and stylistic approaches makes the Coens’ films adventurous, unpredictable probes into social anxieties and reflections on the omnipresence of evil in the modern world. In their trenchant satire, these brilliant writer-directors are heirs to Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder, and as satirists tend to do, the Coens sometimes provoke audience anger and incomprehension along with enjoyment of their penchant for black comedy. 

Film historian and critic Joseph McBride jousts with the Coens’ detractors while defining the filmmakers’ freshness and originality. The quirkily individualistic Coens are the kind of personal filmmakers the increasingly conglomerated American cinema rarely fosters anymore, a distinction partly attributable to their following in Europe and their partial financing by European sources. This critical study goes beyond the often-superficial and confused nature of Coen criticism to illuminate their artistic personalities and contributions to cinematic culture.


“A marvelous and unexpected critical study of the Coen brothers from one of the great historians of American cinema. In The Whole Durn Human Comedy, McBride sets himself the task of uncovering the humanist core in a body of films too often disparaged as aloof and ironic.”—Rob King, Professor of Film and Media Studies, Columbia University, US

“This book adds to current scholarship a sense of sustained respect and appreciation for the Coens’ body of work that is nonetheless tempered by the recognition that, like all artists of every kind, they are hardly unerring or infallible.”—David Sterritt, Editor in Chief, Quarterly Review of Film and Video

"McBride from Wisconsin meets the Coens from Minnesota at high noon at the intersection of noir and black comedy, and the result is a supremely intelligent, passionate, riotous shoot-out in which the brothers' films are deeply analyzed, the naysayers get their just desserts, and the good guys—and readers—win."— Patrick McGilligan, author of biographies of Alfred Hitchcock, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen

“This is an outstanding study that provides fresh insight into the work of the Coen Brothers, questioning the standard view of them as cold and cynical, instead arguing for a fresh perspective that appreciates their playful cinematic virtuosity and their humane response to the conundrum of human experience.”—Robert Shail, Leeds Beckett University, UK

 “In a very detailed, well-researched thesis, Joseph McBride draws you into the Coen Brothers’ world. It’s like he’s gotten inside their heads—or at least their creative process. His facts, figures and knowledge will spark serious debate about the Brothers’ legacy. Fans on one side. Critics on the other.”—Dwight Brown, Film Critic, and NNPA News Wire Syndication

"Joseph McBride, that exemplary critic and historian of the Golden Age of Hollywood, has now turned his attention to two of the most acclaimed and controversial figures of our current cinema, the Coen Brothers. But this lively, engaging volume is fully a piece with McBride’s prior work while also extending it. As he situates the Coens within contemporary filmmaking, McBride also links their rigorous attention to form with such dazzling filmmakers who have preceded them such as Billy Wilder, John Ford, Steven Spielberg, and Orson Welles, all of them subjects of earlier McBride volumes, as well as with Stanley Kubrick and Preston Sturges. What McBride terms the 'guarded idealism' of the Coens, with the complex tension in their films between caricature and empathy and where bold tonal shifts place demands on viewer expectations, is at the center of this important, highly readable and compelling new study."— Joe McElhaney, Hunter College/City University of New York, US; author of Luchino Visconti and the Fabric of Cinema

“The Coen Brothers, serious artists who routinely test the limits of facetiousness, have long delighted, befuddled, and infuriated both critics and paying moviegoers, sometimes all at once. As narrative provocateurs, the Coens have so far been understandably reluctant to explain, much less justify, their peculiar aesthetic. Luckily for their fans, they have now found a proper champion (and explicator) in Joseph McBride, last seen dissecting the comedic ironies of Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder with his characteristic blend of scholarship, insight, and wit.The Whole Durn Human Comedy will certainly remind you of the many unique pleasures to be found in the Coen Bros.' filmography, and might even introduce you to a few new ones you may not have appreciated on first viewing. And, if you keep running tallies of the good Coens and the bad Coens, as I do, you are likely to find that McBride forces you to rejigger both lists.”— Sam Hamm, screenwriter of Batman (1989), Monkeybone, and Homecoming

"Joseph McBride, long one of our most respected film historians, adds to his estimable appraisals of the likes of Ford, Capra, Hawks, Welles, Lubitsch, and Spielberg with an incisive analysis (and often impassioned defense) of the often misunderstood works of the iconoclastic Coen Bros. — whom he sees as the heirs apparent to such icons as Preston Sturges, James M. Cain, and Jonathan Swift. Approaching their unique oeuvre with a warmth and understanding which extends even to the films he views as problematic, he concludes with a dead-on celebration of their masterpiece (in my view), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.”— Joe Dante, director of Gremlins, Matinee, and Small Soldiers

“Joseph McBride, whose studies of pantheon directors (Welles, Ford, Capra, and Spielberg among them) have set a dazzling standard, does it again with his latest: a shrewd, entertaining, and lucid look at those mavericks of contemporary cinema, the Coen Brothers. Notoriously unwilling to examine/explain/pontificate on their own work, the Coens are fortunate to have in McBride an analyst both astute and affectionate, one who writes with elegance, intelligence, and humor in an attempt to answer his own central question: ‘O Brothers, Who Art Thou?’” —Julie Kirgo, film historian, screenwriter, and journalist

“Thanks to Joseph McBride’s brilliant, luminescent analysis, I am liberated from three decades of befuddlement about what the Coen Brothers are up to, or why I should appreciate them. O brother, this is the book on the Coens we’ve all been waiting for.”—Gerald Peary, film historian, critic, and documentary filmmaker

"I doubt if there are filmmakers more compulsively referential and slier than the Coen Brothers, and this celebration of their films by Joseph McBride gleefully zeroes in on the roots and ironies of their work with the precision of a dive-bombing hawk." —Jeffrey Sweet, author of Something Wonderful Right Away and The Value of Names

A great historian, Joseph McBride, author of books as voluminous as they are fundamental on Ford, Welles, Capra, and Spielberg, and very recently on Lubitsch and Wilder which we have recommended in these columns, has chosen, this time, the short form to defend the Coen Brothers, who are far from unanimously regarded in American criticism. McBride, with his humor, his well-founded analyses, and his knowledge of the cinema and literature (he places the Coens in the lineage of Swift, Preston Sturges, Ford, and Flannery O'Connor), responds in seven chapters to the recurring criticisms addressed to the filmmakers: that they are heartless cynics, practitioners of the change of tone from comedy to violence, lacking empathy for their characters, nihilists who believe in nothing, more interested in form than substance, condescending or contemptuous of their heroes. - Michel Ciment in Positif, Paris, November 2022

Author Information

Joseph McBride is an internationally renowned film historian, biographer, and critic who has written twenty-two other books, including acclaimed biographies of Frank Capra, John Ford, and Steven Spielberg.


Anthem Film and Culture

Table of Contents

A Note to the Reader; Introduction: The Taciturn Two; 1. Heartless Cynics?; 2. “The Pleasure of Mixing Things Around”; 3. Caricature and Empathy; 4. A Grand Design; 5. Skewed Perspectives; 6. “In the Beginning There Was Fear”; 7. “This Cockeyed Caravan”; 8. “Magic * Mirth * Mystery” in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Filmography; Selected Sources on the Coen Brothers; Index.


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