October 17, 2009

Joel & Ethan Coen: The Second Decade (1995-2005)

As the Walker Art Center's Coen Brothers retrospective, Joel & Ethan Coen: Raising Cain, finishes this weekend, I'm rushing to record some brief thoughts on the six films from their second decade of filmmaking. 

ReadA Conversation with the Coens & a Look at Their First Decade (1984-1994)

(Title screens via the Walker blog.)

Fargo (1996)

I wasn't allowed to like Fargo the first time - as I recounted last year, nobody in Minnesota was. It was funny, sure, but at the expense of the local culture. Not a culture that I really identify with, but nonetheless one that I obviously recognized and one that was extremely offended by the film. Yes, people do talk like that and yes, the winters are that bad. Sometimes even worse. But in addition to an innately lower body temperature and a twisted sense of humor, most Minnesotans also have a keen awareness of when they're being mocked, and they weren't happy about Fargo until...well, until it started winning awards, and until the Coens became recognized as perhaps the best filmmaking duo of their generation. Then everybody looooved Fargo (read more about the local reaction here).

Watching it again recently I not only appreciated the comedy and cultural needling, but I rediscovered how great the acting is from all of the major players. Frances McDormand obviously won Best Actress for her performance, but William H. Macy and Kristin Rudrüd are great as Jerry and Jean Lundegaard, and Steve Buscemi and even John Carroll Lynch are in top form.

Most of my favorite scenes feature Marge Gunderson (McDormand) talking to the locals, probably the highlight being her rendezvous with Mike Yanagita. But here's another classic, both because it features the exterior of the Lakeshore Club, a random bar/social club that I always saw by my friend's house growing up, and because it references my alma mater, WBLAHS ("Go Bears!"):

The Big Lebowski (1998)

I don't think there is a trippier Coen movie than The Big Lebowski, and I don't think there is a funnier Coen character than John Goodman's Walter Sobchak. For these reasons it's easy to see why the last Coen film of the 90's became a cult classic only a few years after it was released (to middling reviews, it should be noted). There is the annual Lebowski Fest (now in eight cities, and growing), and the constant pop culture references, and the frequent midnight showings. In fact there probably isn't another Coen film celebrated as often as this one.

What makes it so special? I really believe it's Walter Sobchak. Sure, Jeff Bridges makes Judd Apatow's schlubs seem like downright gentlemen, and the seedy L.A. bowling culture is hilariously depicted. But in my opinion this would be a completely different movie without John Goodman's effortlessly obnoxious performance. One of my favorite scenes is (SPOILER) his eulogy for Donny, but of course the only clips available are dumb reenactments from countless Lebowski devotees. So instead here's a different clip of Walter, in which (true story) he makes a snide comment to Joel Coen after he thinks he hears him call "cut" in the middle of the scene.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

According to the brothers, they didn't realize they were remaking "The Odyssey" until they were well into writing the screenplay for O Brother, Where Art Thou? There's no need for them to be worried about accusations of plagiarism, because I still think it's one of the most unique projects of this decade, even if it's not one of my favorite Coen films. The strengths of O Brother are most obviously heard (the bluegrass soundtrack relaunched many careers) and seen (Roger Deakins' sepia-toned cinematography is perfectly understated), but the underlying political and social commentary also adds depth you don't find in many of the Coen movies.

The idiocy of Clooney, Turturro, and Blake Nelson still tests my patience, and while I don't find the comedy as rip-roaring as most people, I can still appreciate the tongue-in-cheek satire behind many of the scenes. In the recent Regis Dialogue with the Coens, for example, they described how the "O Death" scene with the Ku Klux Klan was actually filmed using an African-American marching band or color guard or something like that. It was also shot right next to a freeway outside of L.A. and could be easily seen from the road. They're not sure how they got away with it. Anyway, here's what might be the most well-known scene, and one that I think features the best song from the movie. Introducing the Soggy Bottom Boys:

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

Not having seen all of their films in 2001, I still didn't really understand the Coens' style of filmmaking when I saw the noirish dark comedy The Man Who Wasn't There in the theater. Thinking back I'm surprised I even went to see it, but I suppose I must have still been excited about Billy Bob Thornton after A Simple Plan, since Scarlett Johannson and James Gandolfini certainly weren't names I would have known eight years ago. To take nothing away from Carter Burwell's great scores in all of the Coen movies, I love the piano renditions of Beethoven symphonies throughout this film. The music, along with the black-and-white coloring (it was actually shot in color and then drained in post-production), creates a melancholic atmosphere that draws you in and almost forces you to marinate on its themes of loneliness, love, and redemption. 

I don't think of it as a really hard-boiled noir (though it has been described as such), and the pace could only be described as unhurried. But that's nice in a way, because a lot of Coen stories scurry along and jump around (as Elvis Mitchell astutely observed in the Regis Dialogue, nearly all of their films are chase films), while The Man Who Wasn't There, along with Blood Simple, Barton Fink, and No Country for Old Men, move along deliberately and really operate as meditations on one or two key characters. Anyway, here's a surprisingly brisk scene featuring Tony Shaloub, who has unfortunately only been cast in two Coen movies (can you name the other one?):

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

You can see what's wrong with Intolerable Cruelty without even watching the movie. Those three names in the writing credits alongside Joel and Ethan - Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and John Romano? Collectively they've written Big Trouble, Man of the House, Nights of Rodanthe, and TV shows including "Class of '96" and "Cop Rock", to name just a few.

The Coens share screenplay credits here but something just does not click for me with this movie. The one Coen-esque thing about the characters is that they're depraved and depressed, but I see no chemistry between George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones (which I guess is the point?), and the story is so contrived, particularly the ending. I don't know, I saw this for the first time recently and found it pretty disappointing, yet also validating. After all, there's a reason I had skipped it in the first place. It's not entirely without merit, but the "good" scenes are few and far between. Here's one that actually appears to bear the Coen mark:

The Ladykillers (2004)

Though Intolerable Cruelty is lesser Coen in my opinion, and though The Hudsucker Proxy is always and unfairly omitted from their filmography, The Ladykillers is the Coen film that should really be forgotten. Its soulful soundtrack and inspired set pieces simply cannot make up for a tediously unfunny 104 minutes of obscenities, slapstick gags, and Tom Hanks sniveling and snorting and sounding quite a lot like Forrest Gump. 

Maybe it takes a few viewings and maybe I'm just missing the meaning behind the comedy, but J.K. Simmons and Marlon Wayans bickering for a couple hours doesn't really do much to entertain me. In fact I was more interested in Ryan Hurst's performance as Lump, because I think Hurst misinterpreted direction to act "dumb as a rock" as direction to act as a rock; Lump ends up hardly even human, and not at all funny.

Granted, The Ladykillers also not an original Coen story, as they were commissioned to rewrite the script from the 1955 film of the same name (which I haven't seen). After Barry Sonnenfeld left the project the brothers were also tapped to produce and direct it. Incidentally, after two decades of filmmaking this was the first movie in which they were both credited as writers, producers, and directors (perhaps to share the blame for what they knew would be a miss?). Here's a forgivingly brief scene:


Coming soon - The Coen Brothers: The Third Decade (2006-)...


  1. Great post!

    Fargo, along with No Country for Old Men, was perhaps Coens' best movie, and they both happen to be among my favourite movies. Didn't know about the Minnesota angle, that the movie wasn't allowed to be shown there. Yes, it was quite obvious that there was a bit of mockery there in the film even for a non-Minnesotan (or for that matter, non-American) like me. But I believe there wasn't any malice there.

    The Big Lebowski, as you aptly pointed out, has arguably the biggest fan-following among all of Coens' movies. Its cult following is immense. I liked the film all right, but can't say if I liked it as much as some of the movie's admirers would have me like it.

    As for The Man Who Wasn't There, I feel it is an underrated gem. A lot of people seem to overlook it, and I find that very disappointing. In my opinion, its a very well-crafted film minus the Coens' usual signatures - quite atypical in that sense (unlike Fargo, the wry humour is much more understated here).

    I need to watch O Brother... once again, cos I watched it long back and so don't seem to have an opinion one way or other right now.

    Fortunately or unfortunately, I haven't watched the last 2. Given your views about them it seems I'm more fortunate than unfortunate ;)

  2. Great thoughts, Shubhajit. Fargo and No Country are also two of my favorite Coen films. I should clarify that Fargo was certainly allowed to be shown here, it just wasn't appreciated by many people at the time! The review in the local paper actually had to go so far as to warn moviegoers that many of them may be offended by it. Anyway, you understood what the Coens were doing because they really meant to show Minnesota in a sentimental light.

    I go back and forth with Lebowski, but at the end of the day I think I appreciate its parts more than its whole, if that makes sense. A movie that I could watch a lot of clips from, but one that doesn't necessarily need to be seen from start to finish. Shh, don't tell the cult...

    It takes a special kind of person to appreciate The Man Who Wasn't There. I think the same will go for A Serious Man once that makes its way around. For now I prefer ASM, but The Man Who Wasn't There deserves a lot of credit for bringing a decidedly Coen take to a well-worn genre film.

    Yeah, nice pick-up on these last two. They were numbers 13 and 14, the last of all of their films that I saw. I would recommend that to be the case for everyone, though I know both movies have their fans...

  3. I have a hard time selecting my favorite Coen movie; it alternates between Fargo and Lebowski. Not helping matters is that I seem to appreciate both more with each repeat viewing. Being the darker of the two, it's probably easier for people (including myself) to call Fargo the better film, but there's something to be said for the macap hilarity and colorful characters of the Dude and gang.

    I still need to see The Ladykillers and The Man Who Wasn't There, if only because they're the only Coen movies I've yet to see. I could also stand for some refreshers on O Brother and Cruelty. I enjoyed both - yes, both - but every Coen movie, even the ones I don't immediately love (coughASeriousMancough) are worthy of a second look.

  4. Thanks for checking in on this one. I know what you mean by finding some new love for both Fargo and Lebowski with each viewing. And increasingly I can understand the cult madness about Jeff and Walter - they're just terrific characters, and their quotes are timeless.

    I can understand wanting to close out your Coen filmography, but honestly The Ladykillers is entirely skippable even for their fans. Of course you do like JK Simmons more than most people, or at least I think you do, so that could make it somewhat worthwhile. And The Man Who Wasn't There, well I think if it catches you in the right mood you might really go for it.


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