Sunday, October 26, 2003

Coen Heads

By Elise Nakhnikian

The fourth wall has been broken so often it’s a wonder there’s anything left of it. But even at this meta moment in the history of movies, Joel and Ethan Coen’s unconventional stories stand out.

The Coen brothers, who have co-written, co-directed and co-produced nine highly stylized movies since their 1984 debut, Blood Simple, are to movies what Madonna is — or anyhow was — to pop music: They revive one mothballed genre after another, sometimes sampling several at once, and make them look sharper than ever.

Blood Simple is a no-star 1940s-style film noir, while The Man Who Wasn’t There is a slick, more Hitchockian noir. Miller’s Crossing is a 1930s-style gangster picture. Barton Fink is a portrait of a self-important Clifford Odets-type playwright set in 1940s Hollywood. The Hudsucker Proxy is a story of corporate duplicity that takes place in the ’50s but has the crisp yet creamy look of Depression-era Deco. And so on.

The Coens aren’t interested in gritty realism. Not even murder is played straight, but they exaggerate the horror rather than the thrill, aiming for something other than cheap sensation. People rarely die easily in their movies (the husband in Blood Simple, who is finally buried alive, is far from the only example, though he may be the most extreme). And when they do, their bodies aren’t easily disposed of (remember that wood chipper in Fargo?)

These guys clearly love movies.

They also love actors — especially character actors with interesting faces and stars with old-fashioned sex appeal, who might have stepped out of one of the old movies theirs are modeled on. Their crew includes Joel Coen’s wife, Frances McDormand; John Turturro; John Goodman; and Steve Buscemi, all of whom look like real people and can give the brothers the exaggerated performances they usually want, stylizing their emotions like kabuki players. Lately the in group has added George Clooney, whose macho good looks and self-mocking intelligence helped him channel Clark Gable in O Brother Where Art Thou and Cary Grant in Intolerable Cruelty, the brothers’ latest.

An update of 1930s screwball comedies like The Awful Truth and The Lady Eve, Cruelty is a perfectly serviceable vehicle, but it’s more Ford than Cadillac. The Coens’ snappy dialogue, bizarre setups and quirky supporting characters fit right into this genre, making this their most accessible movie yet. Probably not coincidentally, it’s also their least distinctive and the first they didn’t write from scratch, instead polishing somebody else’s screenplay. Aside from the brother’s top-notch technique – arresting set, sound, and costume design and beautifully paced editing – this movie is powered mainly by the sparks that fly between its high-voltage stars, the debonair Clooney and the glossy Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Maintaining your vision in Hollywood can be tough, but it’s probably easier if you have the trust, support and shared understanding of a twin/collaborator. Whatever the reason, the Coens always seem to have known what they wanted and how to get it. They’ve been granted final cut on their meticulously constructed movies from the start, and they’ve always had a good eye for talent: They were the first directors to hire composer Carter Burwell, who went on to score more than 50 movies in addition to every Coen brothers film since Blood Simple, and their first director of photography was Barry Sonnenfeld, who later shot movies like When Harry Met Sally and Big and then became a director of his own quirky hits

The brothers have a lot in common with Quentin Tarantino, another meta moviemaker whose gorgeously shot, lit, and art-directed movies plunder old genres but have a distinctive tone all their own, not to mention a smart sense of humor and a brilliant way of using popular music to help tell the story (the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? won a Grammy for Album of the Year).

But while Tarantino always seems to like his main characters, the Minnesota twins often seem to feel contempt for theirs. Their smart movies about dumb people, like O Brother and The Big Lebowski, can feel coldly condescending toward what Barton Fink would call “the common man.” It’s hard to care about a story when you feel no warmth for any of the characters, and it’s no coincidence that their best movies all have sympathetic characters, like McDormand’s pregnant policewoman in Fargo or Holly Hunter’s baby-craving cop and her sweetly devoted ex-con husband in Raising Arizona.

Even the snarky Coen brothers movies contained images I still remember, even if I saw them only once and years ago. Considering how fast most movies fade from memory, that’s saying a lot. But it’s not enough: Movies should be moving images in both senses of the word.

The brothers are just 46 and they’ve been averaging about one movie every two years since Blood Simple came out, so they should make a lot more before they start slowing down. That will be good news if they keep making stylish, funny, flyaway confections like Intolerable Cruelty. And if they mine more gems like Miller’s Crossing, it’ll be more than just good. It will be great.

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