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Bask In the Ultimate Life Lessons From The Coen Brothers Archive

While most people in America are getting ramped up for this weekend’s Super Bowl, cinema fanatics will be celebrating Hail, Caesar!, a screwball comedy about Hollywood’s golden era. The film comes out in theaters today, and stars everyone from George Clooney and Channing Tatum, to Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill, and Scarlett Johansson. It also happens to be the 16th feature film from the greatest directing brothers around, the Coen brothers.

You never really know what you’re going to get when you sit down to watch a Coen brothers movie. Joel and Ethan have made films that are challenging, hilarious, heartbreaking, horrifying, and just plain weird—usually all at once. Comparing one to the other would be like comparing apples to oranges to bananas. But what does shine through each one of their films are the pointed lessons in human nature. So to get ready for the ridiculousness that’s out in theaters this weekend, here are the five most important life lessons you can learn from the fraternal duo.

Don’t ditch your friends to get laid (O Brother, Where Art Thou?).

Though we say things like, “Bros before hoes” all the time, it’s still extremely easy to take your true friends for granted. I, for example, wouldn’t think twice about ditching the friends I’ve been out with all night at the mere chance of getting lucky with a complete stranger. This is not good behavior, and those (like this author) who could use a bit of a reminder would do well to revisit O Brother, Where Art Thou? After escaping from a chain gang, Everett, Pete, and Delmar go through a literal odyssey of shit to retrieve a lost treasure and reunite with lost loves. One of their many obstacles comes in the form of half-naked temptress witches who distract them with a corn whiskey fueled baptism orgy. When Everett and Delmar awake, they find Pete transformed into a toad, a tragic work of magic that only occurred because Everett and Delmar were too busy getting drunk and laid to keep an eye on each other. Luckily, Pete didn’t actually turn into a toad, and the three reunite after more misadventures, but the lesson still holds true. Your friends will be there for you the morning after; the greasy stranger you’ve only known for a couple hours? Not so much.

There are no clean getaways (No Country for Old Men).

This ominous life lesson from No Country for Old Men is made pretty clear throughout the grueling, horrifying thriller—it was even used as the tagline on some of the film’s posters. And viewers should take heed. If you ever find yourself in the protagonist Llewelyn Moss’ situation, wherein you find a case full of two million dollars surrounded by dead and dying people, remember that you’re better off not taking the money. And if you do, it’s certainly not going to be as easy as buying a plane ticket to a luxury vacation and drinking piña coladas for the next month. No, what’s going to happen is a man straight out of a nightmare will start hunting you down with a bolt pistol, and will not stop hunting you down until he gives you a coin toss for your life. Moral of the story: if you’re going to flirt with some shady shit, you best be ready for the inevitable disasters that are going to follow.

Death is a senseless but natural part of life (The Big Lebowski).

Death, the end-all be-all. Words cannot express what a hard time humans have processing and accepting death. The only thing that we can all agree on without a single session of therapy is that it’s going to happen—and without making much sense. And there’s nothing we can do about it either. Take The Big Lebowski‘s Donny. Donny was simply out bowling with his friends Walter and The Dude like he had done every week. He didn’t know that a group of nihilists would be waiting to ambush them in the parking lot for a crime he had nothing to do with. He wasn’t even their primary target. But Donny was the sweet prince who took a fatal stabbing, left to die whimpering in the arms of his confused friends. No matter how much cool The Dude was able to exude over the course of The Big Lebowski, nothing could have prepared him for the experience of collecting his friend’s ashes in a coffee can. Death comes when we least expect it, and the best that we can do is find a nice urn for when it happens.

When the going gets tough, kill ‘em with kindness (Fargo).

Life isn’t easy. In fact, life is actually kind of shitty. But attitude is everything; sure, it’s easy to be downtrodden and glum, but you would be amazed at how fast your luck can turn around if you put a smile on your face. At least that’s what Marge Gunderson taught us in Fargo. You think life is hard? Try investigating a brutal murder case in the middle of a frozen wasteland while you’re seven months pregnant. And also while getting hit on by greasy classmates from your high school years. And also while apprehending suspects busy stuffing corpses into a wood chipper. Marge didn’t complain once, in fact, Marge did the opposite. Surrounded by so much horror and grief, Marge was able to remind us of the joys of getting a bag of Arby’s or the intricacies of a 3 cent postage stamp. So be more like Marge, life ain’t so bad when you sprinkle it with a little Minnesota nice.

Some things in life are just not going to add up (Inside Llewyn Davis).

As different as each Coen brothers film may be, there’s one distinct quality that pops up in each and every one: they never really end. Where your average Hollywood feature will wrap up each plotline in a nice and tidy way, a Coen brothers movie will tie everything up, keep rambling on for another half hour, and then stop abruptly. This stylistic pattern is exemplified in a film like Inside Llewyn Davis, where the title character makes it through lousy record deals, heroin overdoses, artistic failure, and lost cats, only to get beaten up in an alley. Did Llewyn learn anything though his trials and tribulations? Not really, and the same could be said for the audience as well. Which ultimately leads us to the greatest Coen life lesson of all: life just happens, and at the end of the day it’s not going to make sense. And that’s okay.

Stay tuned to Milk for more director tributes. 

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