It took me a while to warm up to The Big Lebowski. I kind of liked it but I didn’t really get it until the third or fourth viewing.
The only movie I disliked was The Man Who Wasn’t There, though I want to re-watch it.
I’m a huge fan of A Serious Man. To me, that is the Rosetta stone of Coen Bros. movies. The opening vignette, where the rabbi might (or might not) be a dybbuk, who might (or might not) have been killed, etc., and the whole bit with “The Mentaculus” kind of threw their whole oeuvre into focus.
Every single one of their movies (except Hail, Caesar!, which was after) involves characters involved in various plans and schemes, and not one of them ever knows what’s really going on. (Again, except Josh Brolin’s heavily romanticized Eddie Mannix.)
They’re daring you to find the cause-and-effect (which is very Jewish), or even the meaning in anything (which is very ex-Jewish). I believe this is why they’re accused of being cold. Filmmakers have all these cues they use to tell the audience “this is important”/“these are the good guys”/“you should care about this”, and they are reticent to use those cues, relying on their audience to come to its own conclusions.
This is really encapsulated at the end of A Serious Man, which is (of course) the book of Job transplanted to suburban Minnesota in the late '60s. Larry Gopnik finally caves to the pressure, passing the Asian student who has not done the work and has offered a bribe, and is greeted by a cyclone (a biblical sign of god’s fury) coming up to his window.
Is it the wrath of an angry God or just a coincidence? Does Larry’s brother have the secrets of the universe in The Mentaculus, or is he just nuts? The signs point to the former until he winds up winning huge at some gambling game (roulette?). The Coens aren’t going to tell you what any of it means or how to feel about it.
I’m sure that’s also why some people REALLY don’t like their work. And, honestly, that’s fair. It’s all well-and-good to (e.g.) write a piece on how the Empire in Star Wars is really the good guys or how Mr. Potter is the hero in It’s A Wonderful Life, but the fact is, most storytelling is done by giving the audience specific clues as to how to feel, and audiences seem to find that satisfying.
Anyway, as much as I love 'em, if Ethan doesn’t want to make movies any more, he really, really shouldn’t. Their body of work is amazing as it is.