Just sit back and enjoy...

You probably thought that the Coen Brothers' movies were intricately woven, philosophically abstruse meditations on life, death and madness. You couldn't be more wrong. They're all about showing you a good time. By Ryan Gilbey

Joel and Ethan Coen are their names but the Coen Brothers sounds more lean, more sinister - like a gangland duo come to set about you with a monkey wrench. It has a studied, business-like ring; it suggests a gang, a team, a machine. The Coen Brothers' machine has been chugging away at an agreeable pace since 1984, producing a film every two or three years, each of them offering a natty twist on a familiar genre, and all of them technically perfect right down to the typography on the final credit crawl. But what are their films for? There's an easy answer. I think it's the only answer. Entertainment.

Many people would be disappointed with that conclusion, and it's their fruitless search to locate a more complex and intangible quality in the Coens' work: witness the way fans relentlessly pursue a meaning behind the symbol of the hat in Miller's Crossing, a film that has earned the Brothers the label of major artists - a reputation that it's possible to feel they have only won by association. Which is to say that, because their movies are distinguished by astonishing technical expertise, and littered with informed references to film history, audiences and critics alike find it easier to persuade themselves that the Coens are striving to create something more noble and adventurous than mere entertainment. As though films that attempt to entertain are not in their own way as noble and adventurous as those that require a furrowing of the brow and a working knowledge of Kierkegaard.

Ethan certainly possesses the latter, and quite possibly the former, having studied philosophy, a biographical detail that has perhaps led both admirers and detractors (like the writer John Harkness, who called the Brothers "sphinxes without riddles") to expect or demand more than these films can possibly yield. Ethan produces, and co-writes with Joel, who directs. Joel did a snappy job of editing their friend Sam Raimi's comic horror The Evil Dead at the start of his career and Raimi has been a frequent influence and collaborator - he directed the wonderful hula hoop sequence in The Hudsucker Proxy, and played a cop shot to pieces in Miller's Crossing, a fitting punishment perhaps for having written the crushingly unfunny Crimewave with the Coens.

Joel and Ethan continue to edit most of their own work under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes, a supposedly spiky, eccentric Englishman who had an accidental brush with fame when "he" was nominated for an Oscar this year for editing Fargo. The Coens' films are so meticulously planned and storyboarded that it's only a mind immune to paranoia that wouldn't consider the possibility that each production is staffed in this pseudonymous fashion - that everyone from the hairdresser to the on-site caterer is a figment of the Brothers' imaginations, and it's actually Joel and Ethan running the whole show, their fingers in every available pie. I'm certain that if the logistics weren't so challenging, they'd have a go. Surely the margin for human error is too large a risk to films that are plotted out like motorway intersections.

It's a common complaint that the Coens fill the screen with virtuoso camerawork and production design to disguise the misanthropic heart at the centre of their work. Reviewing their first feature, the cruel noir thriller Blood Simple, Pauline Kael decided that "the reason the camera whoop-de-do is so noticeable is that there's nothing else going on", while David Thomson reached a similar conclusion: "Its skill and noirish expertise seemed without destination or purpose." It's true that, on its rerelease last year, the film appeared notable only for its vast influence on young American film-makers, and for its ugly, forbidding tone.

The Coens followed it with the exhilarating and imaginative Raising Arizona. A kidnapping comedy in which the camera is as restless as the picture's jittery jailbird hero (Nicolas Cage), it remains their most mature and honest work to date. Why is it more successful than the sombre gangster drama Miller's Crossing or the surreal Hollywood satire Barton Fink (which won the Palme D'Or and two other awards at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival), or the screwball pastiche The Hudsucker Proxy? Because it's the film in which the Coens have seemed most effortlessly at ease with their material, least conspicuous about their talent for economical storytelling (the throwaway pre-credit sequence is a whole movie in itself), and most in touch with the notion of a pure, sensual and involving cinema. In short, they show off in all the right places.

Viewed separately, the Coens' films can be bewitching, but if you tune in to Channel 4's season, starting tomorrow and charting all their work to date (excluding last year's Fargo), you will be struck by the absence of any cumulative excellence. To consider the Coens' films as a body of work in the auteurist sense is to be forced to confront their most glaring weaknesses: watching Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing and The Hudsucker Proxy - the movies which have aged least gracefully - side by side is like witnessing a scientist conducting the same experiment over and over again, smashing the test tubes at the culmination of each and starting afresh on the next, identical project.

There is a real, gnawing futility to these pictures, despite the fact that they each have priceless treasures buried within them - John Turturro begging for his life, twice, in Miller's Crossing, for instance, almost makes you forgive how grim and prissy the rest of the movie feels. Fargo marked a distinct progression in this area, giving us a character - the pregnant cop played by Oscar-winning Frances McDormand - who seemed to function independently of her creators. Ironic, really, when you consider that McDormand is Joel's wife. Her appearance half-way through defrosted a movie whose cruelty might otherwise have destroyed it. She defined the film - the first time the Coens have allowed a single performer such freedom.

It remains to be seen whether this generosity of characterisation will extend to their new film, The Big Lebowski, a comic thriller that stars Jeff Bridges as a bowling aficionado mistaken for a millionaire. It opens next year. Until then, enjoy the Channel 4 season, save the blank video tape for Raising Arizona and prepare to be neither dazzled nor mesmerised, just entertained.

The Channel 4 season of Coen Brothers films begins tomorrow at 10pm with `The Hudsucker Proxy' and continues next week with `Miller's Crossing'

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