The house is burning down. The cat runs away. The good news the doctor gave was misread. A tornado is heading toward town. Take one of these scenarios, and it’s an inciting incident or the main conflict — take them all, and it’s a Coen brothers movie.
The characters are suddenly thrown into a world that is entirely against them. Each Coen protagonist is dealt a bad hand, and for about two hours we watch as he or she slogs through them. You watch the protagonist struggle for acceptance, success, or a greater good — usually with a goal in sight — while trying to figure out the reason for such godawful luck along the way. And even when there is a ray of hope and the world slightly shifts back to the way it should be, a new twist of malevolent fate occurs, sending the protagonist back deeper into the bleak spiral.
So the question is — why’s it so funny?
Black cloud movies go back to the misadventures of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Ben Stiller is another master of the genre: Meet the Parents (2000), directed by Jay Roach, is a perfect example. Watch it once, it’s hilarious. Watch it twice, it’s funny. Watch it 15 times, it’s heartbreaking. You’ll also find examples amongst the oeuvre of Woody Allen, Hal Ashby, David Lynch, and other directors who straddle the fine line of a tragedy/comedy. Bryant H. McGill, when asked why we laugh at terrible things, responded, “Because comedy is often the sarcastic realization of inescapable tragedy.”
Though the Coens didn’t invent the genre, they have certainly cornered the market. Barton Fink (1991), The Big Lebowski (1998), A Serious Man (2009), and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) all follow a likable character trying to keep his head above water as the world continues to throw hardball after hardball. The protagonists are thrown in awkward and sometimes dangerous situations. The Big Lebowski is more of a farce, revolving around kidnapping plots and mistaken identities, while A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis deal more with common misfortunes we find in everyday life.
A broken world
In farce, the humor is over the top and the world typically rights itself by the end, but with darker comedies/dramedies, the humor is subtle, and by the end the world may still be just as broken as it was in the beginning. In these cases, you find yourself not sure what to do. Is this supposed to be funny? I was just laughing a minute ago. There’s no punchline; why am I still laughing?
Characters in black cloud movies are often passive and have a “shake it off” buoyancy, which makes it possible to watch their misadventures without feeling bad for them. They react to the house burning down, not with hysterics and weeping, but flat, deadpan looks as they walk away. It’s not so much the situations they are in, but their approach and mannerisms that are funny.
Oscar Isaac, who portrays Llewyn Davis, talks about this style in an interview for ScreenSlam: “It’s. . .a laughter of recognition. . . .we laugh because it’s awful and that’s how life feels often, but out of that comes a joy, it’s not a cynical view of life.”
It’s funny because we have all experienced times where we felt like ants under the magnifying glass when we shouted up to the sky, “Why?” We laugh out of the dark spots of our past. Oscar Isaac is right: You may feel like a cynic watching people go through these rough hardships, but it’s what most of life is all about. It may break your heart, but sometimes all you can do is laugh.