Irony, as we all learned from Reality Bites, is when “the actual meaning is the complete opposite from the literal meaning.” But what if the actual meaning isn’t so actual? What if instead it is frustratingly oblique, and not easily interpreted or understood? How, then, do we gauge the category, quality, and purpose of the intended irony?
For twenty-seven years Joel and Ethan Coen have posed this conundrum to mainstream audiences. For all the importance attached to their names and for all the plaudits and awards they continually receive, the question still remains like a nagging doubt: are they sincere, and are we supposed to take them seriously?
This question has been less troubling in recent years due to the enormous success of two of their more earnest efforts, No Country for Old Men and True Grit. But the befuddlement and discomfort that in many corners greeted Burn After Reading and A Serious Man—the more typically dark and strange Coen products sandwiched between them—suggests that the brothers’ challenge will not be taken off the table anytime soon. Their track record says as much: if Shakespeare had his “problem plays”—defined by their wild tonal shifts and ambiguous morals—the Coens have made a virtual career of such artistic grey areas, always delivering them with an irony simultaneously goofy and acidic.
Rated the lowest of all Coen films on Rotten Tomatoes, and generally spoken of with embarrassment by fans who see it as the nadir of their career, the 2004 version of The Ladykillers—a loose remake of the 1955 British comedy—makes the best case by which to come to terms with the siblings’ thick, often impenetrable, ironic humor. On the surface this would appear ridiculous. The Ladykillers is if anything immeasurably broad, its comedic highlights taking the form of Tom Hanks’s unctuous parody of a Southern dandy, a repeated irritable bowel syndrome gag, and the frequent sight of an elderly black widow chastising and walloping a quintet of hapless criminals. Read Michael Joshua Rowin’s entry in Reverse Shot’s “Simply the Worst” symposium.