The Films of Joel Coen
The Hudsucker Proxy
Fargo (October 5/03)
Prior to Fargo, the Coen brothers were essentially fringe filmmakers. They cranked out movies like Barton Fink and Miller's Crossing, which received oodles of kudos from critics but didn't fare quite as well among the movie-going public. But with Fargo, the brothers crossed over into the mainstream - and with good reason, too. It remains their very best film, crammed with memorable characters and quotable dialogue. As the movie opens, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is meeting with two thugs to discuss the kidnapping of his wife. Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) wonder why Jerry would want to have his own wife snatched, and learn that Jerry's plan involves forcing his rich father-in-law to pay the ransom - which, of course, he'll keep. But what Jerry doesn't count on is the bumbling nature of the two crooks (not to mention Gaear's vicious streak), which brings a local police officer named Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) into the mix. First and foremost, the most endearing aspect of Fargo is the characters. From Macy's Jerry to bit players like Lou, Marge's dim-witted partner, the Coens have done a superb job of peppering the story with a plethora of interesting personalities. Most films are hard-pressed to feature central characters that are as compelling as Norm (John Carroll Lynch), Marge's lovably devoted husband. In fact, the relationship between Marge and Norm - though it receives minimal screen time - is intriguing enough to warrant a film revolving entirely around their marriage. It's that attention to even the most peripheral characters that makes Fargo such a special film; that sense that you could essentially take any one of these people and create a film in which they're the focus. Of course, the Coens marvelous script would mean nothing without a talented group of actors. Leading the charge is McDormand's Marge, for which she won the Oscar. Seven months pregnant and still on the job, Marge is as determined as she is unflappable; presented with a belligerent suspect, she'll just keep pouring on the politeness. Even more impressive is the realization that McDormand's not relying on the Minnesota accent to define the character, which sure must have been a temptation. Similarly, it would be easy to dismiss Macy's performance as simplistic due to the heavy accent, but there's certainly a lot more going on than just that. It's clear almost immediately that Jerry's not exactly a bright guy, and Macy's not afraid to play up that aspect of the character. It's because of Macy's performance that we actually feel sorry for the guy, even though he's orchestrated the kidnapping of his own wife. Among the supporting cast, there's not a weak link in the bunch. Buscemi, not surprisingly, steals all his scenes as the talkative and slimy Carl - but Stormare is just as good as Carl's savage associate. For any other movie, the eclectic ensemble would be enough to cement its status as memorable, but the Coens take it another step further and include a storyline that's genuinely compelling. Right from the get-go, Fargo reels us in with its tale of this desperate loser and the genial cop on his trail. The snowy American midwest almost becomes a character in itself, as the Coens (along with cinematographer Roger Deakins) present us with this vast, white landscape that's more ominous than anything else. The film's also been peppered with instances of unflinching violence, which is something that's becoming more and more rare these days. The Coens aren't afraid to show us the ugly side of this story, and the short bursts of brutality provide a nice counterbalance to the more comedic elements in the film. It's highly unlikely the Coens will ever top Fargo, a movie that's virtually perfect. There's probably something here to appeal to everyone, from the performances to the off-kilter storyline, making the film a true classic.
The Big Lebowski
Written by Joel and Ethan Coen, The Big Lebowski follows an affable slacker (Jeff Bridges' The Dude) as he's mistaken for a reclusive millionaire and inadvertently drawn into a kidnapping plot - with the film subsequently detailing The Dude's ongoing efforts at returning to his laid-back lifestyle of drinking, getting high, and bowling. There's little doubt that the Coen brothers do an absolutely superb job of initially drawing the viewer into the proceedings, as the siblings offer up an off-the-wall opening half hour revolving entirely around the comings and goings of several irresistibly idiosyncratic figures - with, in particular, the banter between The Dude and his off-kilter bowling buddies (John Goodman's Walter and Steve Buscemi's Donny) faring especially well. It's just as clear, however, that the film begins to palpably deflate once the almost extraordinarily busy plot kicks in, and it does, as a result, become more and more difficult to work up any real interest in or enthusiasm for The Dude's continuing exploits. The movie's progressively uninvolving atmosphere is worsened by a growing emphasis on elements and characters of an unreasonably oddball nature, with the inclusion of a few admittedly engrossing sequences and interludes (eg Walter accidentally beats the hell out of a random bystander's car) ensuring that, at the very least, the film remains mildly watchable even through its overtly sluggish stretches. Ultimately, The Big Lebowski can't help but come off as yet another in a long line of promising yet disappointing comedies from Joel and Ethan Coen - with the film's love-it-or-hate-it feel certainly explaining its place as a bona fide contemporary cult classic.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Man Who Wasn't There
Intolerable Cruelty (October 10/03)
Intolerable Cruelty marks the Coen brothers' most mainstream project to date, teaming them up with famed producer Brian Grazer. Among their fans, this was a source of worry; had the brothers abandoned their quirky sensibilities in favor of a more homogenized approach? But as it turns out, Intolerable Cruelty is almost a parody of a Coen brothers film, filled to the brim with the dark humor and oddball characters that have come to define their style. Miles Massey (George Clooney) is a divorce attorney at the top of his game, having never lost a case. But when he meets Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta Jones), the soon-to-be ex-wife of a client, he finds himself experiencing something he's never felt before - love. Intolerable Cruelty, much like another Coen comedy, The Big Lebowski, starts out great - it's funny and the actors are perfectly cast - but it eventually fizzles out. The movie works best during the scenes featuring Miles working the case, and interacting with the various characters in his life. Clooney does a fantastic job of portraying this admittedly one-note character, imbuing Miles with a fantastic sense of comedy. Even Cedric the Entertainer delivers a hilarious performance as a private eye, which is pretty impressive given how obnoxious he's been in other flicks. But the movie eventually takes a dark turn that it's never quite able to recover from. It stops being about the characters, and more about the unexpected plot twists that the Coen's have become famous for. It's really a shame, too, considering how effective the first half is. And since the central characters are never developed beyond their most outward attributes, it's hard to care where the Coen's take them. Still, there are some surprisingly funny moments and the performances are effectively broad - but it's just not enough to elevate this to anything more than a mildly engaging romp.