The Peculiar Greatness of the Coens

I don’t think about directors much. If I were a true cinephile, then not only would I be knowledgeable about directors, but probably also cinematographers and even editors. Since I am only at best a dilettante, however, I mostly think about movies in the context of what is directly visible on screen.

Joel and Ethan Coen are something of an exception to this. I’m a fan of them and most of their work, and even when their work doesn’t impress me as being good, the root ideas behind the execution strike me as interesting and worthwhile topics for a film. (Burn After Reading, for example, is a movie I didn’t like a lot, but the concept of a comedy of errors involving self-absorbed, petty people interacting with the cloak-and-dagger world seems like it should be interesting and funny. Spoiler: it’s not.)

I tweeted a list of rankings for their movies recently, and it’s inclusive of 14 of the 17 movies they’ve made. (I haven’t seen the other three, yet. Another is scheduled to be released in a couple months.) I haven’t seen A Serious Man, The Man Who Wasn’t There, or their remake of The Ladykillers. I should, though I didn’t like the original version of The Ladykillers.

Their movies can be split into about 3 categories. The best ones are those that are serious and succeed. The second rank is composed of their comedies. The bottom section is devoted to serious films that don’t quite come off. There are those who think their fondness for George Clooney is off-putting and diminishes their work, and it’s a point of view, sure. I’m not sure that it does entirely since the movies in which I’ve seen him are comedies and Clooney is much better when mugging for the camera than when trying to be a serious actor. His turn in The American, notwithstanding, he’s not really cut out for being serious. Melodramatic, maybe, but not really serious.

The top rank then belongs to four films. (You have to say “films” when you’re being serious, dontcha know.)

1. True Grit
2. No Country for Old Men
3. Blood Simple
4. Miller’s Crossing

True Grit is just a masterpiece. It closely tracks with the book, even more so than the John Wayne original. It’s bleak, it’s full of truth about the perils of seeking vengeance. It’s beautifully shot, it’s well-cast. Barry Pepper captures the outlaw attitude of Ned Pepper well. Josh Brolin whines marvelously as Tom Chaney. Matt Damon (though his accent isn’t amazing) does well as the bit-too-full-of-himself Texas Ranger who feels put down by Jeff Bridges supremely self-confident Rooster Cogburn.

No Country is nearly as good, but ends on a bleaker note. It’s unclear if the evil Chigurh is ever stopped. The anti-heroic Brolin fails in his quest. Tommy Lee Jones retires from the field with, at best, an inconclusive outcome. Should he be ashamed? Or was his age such that he ought not to have expected to triumph?

Blood Simple was their first film and still one of their best. No superstar actors, but a lot of talented character actors and a tightly written, cleverly convoluted plot. Like the two above, it is a fascinating meditation on the effects of evil in our lives. It teaches without preaching and shows instead of telling.

The last of this group is almost another remake. Miller’s Crossing is clearly based on and influenced by The Glass Key, both the novel by Hammett and the movie with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. What seems a convoluted mystery is really a tale about friendship and loyalty. Violent and bleak in appearance it muses on how far one would go for a friend and if loyalty has to run two directions.

The second tier is made up of the movies with happy endings. Basically, they’re all comedies. I know some folks would consider Fargo to be darkly comedic, but it doesn’t belong here for reasons I will get to later.

5. Hail, Caesar!
6. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
7. Intolerable Cruelty
8. The Big Lebowski
9. Raising Arizona
10. The Hudsucker Proxy

Top of this group is Hail, Caesar! which, though a comic take on Hollywood, also contains a fascinating look at virtue and its lack among the inhabitants. It is, as meta-films often are, rather too precious and self-congratulatory at times. But it does also skewer a number of Hollywood clichés that deserve skewering. Brolin is excellent as the no-nonsense studio exec with a moral center. Clooney shines playing an empty-headed movie star with pretensions to intellectualism. (Not a stretch, perhaps?) Too many brilliant bit pieces to mention here, but let me particularly commend Alden Ehrenreich as an earnest, good-hearted cowboy who found himself in pictures almost by accident.

O Brother has, as everyone knows, an amazing soundtrack. It also loosely adapts (borrows from?) The Odyssey, which is fun. Moreover, the interplay between Turturro, Clooney, and Tim Blake Nelson is comedy gold. Charles Durning is a riot as a southern governor, and the inclusion of the KKK is handled deftly balancing menace with mockery. Bonus fact: the title comes from the fictional film that Joel McCrea’s character wants to make in the old film Sullivan’s Travels. (Also well worth seeing!)

Seventh on the big list is Intolerable Cruelty, a movie about love and marriage disguised as a movie about infidelity, gold-digging, and divorce. It’s unsparing about the petty selfishness that often is allowed to destroy marriages while also keeping the hopeful, romantic view where a happy marriage is hoped for by nearly everyone, even if many fall short. Plus, the dialogue is snappy, it has a couple sneaky twists, and features both a brilliant minor part for Billy Bob Thornton and an uncredited cameo for Bruce Campbell.

Darkest of this category is The Big Lebowski. (Let me say, apropos of nothing, that if you’re a big fan of this film, you should probably also check out Two Gentlemen of Lebowski. You can thank me later.) Conceived as a sort of Raymond Chandler mystery in a more modern milieu, it works. Mostly. It kinda has a happy ending. The characters are far less amiable and admirable than in some of their other movies, but it works. It’s clever, though The Dude is less funny to me than most of the cast that revolves around him. But, such is my love for Chandler and mysteries, I still think it belongs here in the middle of the list.

Raising Arizona was their first comedy and they did well right out of the box. Crazy Nic Cage can be a serious comedic asset if used correctly, and the Coens figured out what they were doing and got a great performance out of him. He’s far more effective in farce (as here) than action (Con Air or Face/Off) when he’s being so crazy. Also features the first of several brilliant collaborations with John Goodman as well.

Last of the middle grouping is The Hudsucker Proxy, one of the worst titles in moviedom. It’s accurate, and retains an air of mystery about the outcome as well, but it’s just so dang obscure that it’s hard to justify. Still, eminently quotable (“You know, for kids!” “Yeah, yeah, sure, sure.”) even if the dialogue is just a bit precious and forced at times. It’s intentional, sure, but it’s still a slightly sour note.

Bringing up the rear are the ones that don’t quite work and the one that’s really just awful.

11. Fargo
12. Barton Fink
13. Burn After Reading
14. Inside Llewyn Davis

It almost belongs one tier up, and I’m probably least wedded to this opinion of all the list, but Fargo fails to quite work for the same reason that I don’t like The Dark Knight. (Well, besides Christian Bale doing a terrible Batman voice.) The evil is too attractive. I know, I know, there has to be some appeal to it or else why would it be done? I know, I know, no one is really leaving the theater (or getting up off their couch) thinking the Joker is the hero. But still. Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare are too engaging. What’s the first thing people mention about this movie? The wood chipper.

Still, the potential is there, and maybe I’m overly sensitive. Barton Fink is better on the morality, but it just doesn’t make any sense. I know it’s about the idea of having writer’s block. Yes, they wrote it while stuck trying to make Miller’s Crossing. It just doesn’t seem to click for me. It’s full of interesting moments and scenes. The characters are interesting and say interesting things. But it never adds up to anything. I dunno, maybe it’s me. Your mileage may vary.

Burn After Reading is just depressing. It’s a dark comedy, and it’s too dark and not comedic enough. Everyone in this movie is pretty awful, and even when folks aren’t just the worst, terrible things still happen to them almost inexplicably. JK Simmons as “CIA Superior” sums the movie up pretty well at the end. Like Barton, it feels like it could have delivered, but didn’t. In this case, for the opposite reason, though the plot can be followed and makes sense, it’s just not that interesting.

Finally, the worst Coen movie I’ve seen by a long chalk, is Inside Llewyn Davis. In this case, his life, his head, maybe. Regardless, he’s the most uninteresting and worthless schmoe. He’s not only a selfish jerk, making it difficult to care about his problems that are almost entirely of his own making, but he’s boring besides. Insufferably dull.

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