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Coen Brothers Spotlight: From Their Beginnings To 'Burn After Reading'

September 12th, 2008 11:37am EDT
Coen brothersMany things come to mind when thinking about the films of Joel and Ethan Coen. Dark witty humor, highly stylized production and costume designs, reoccurring actors, clever and often poetic dialogue, and above all some of the best character names in celluloid history.

Just look back at some of the brothers' most memorable characters: The Snoat brothers in Raising Arizona, Bernie Bernbaum and Eddie Dane in Miller's Crossing, Lou Breeze in Barton Fink, Norville Barnes in The Hudsucker Proxy, the Swedish-Americans Marge Gunderson and Jerome Lundegaard in Fargo, Jackie Treehorn and Jesus Quintana in The Big Lebowski (and let's not forget video artist Knox Harrington), Delmar, Pete & Ulysses in O Brother, Where Art Thou, Bid Dave Brewster and Creighton Tolliver in The Man Who Wasn't There, Garth Pancake in The Ladykillers and, well, you get the idea.

Burn After ReadingIt may seem a bit odd to dwell on something as miniscule as name choices for major characters but then again part of the charm of the Brothers Coen has always been their relentless focus on detail, however miniscule it might be.

Today marks the release of the Coen Brothers 13th feature film to date and their first follow-up to last year's Oscar winning film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men. In honor of the release of Burn After Reading, yet another genre bending, screwball comedy starring a slew of Coen regulars (George Clooney & Frances McDormand) and exciting newcomers (John Malkovich any one!) it seems only fitting to take a film by film look back at the Coen's evolution to the seasoned filmmakers we know today.

The Early Pictures:

Blood SimpleAll great filmmakers get their start somewhere and some efforts play out better than others. The Coens jumped onto the scene with 1984s Blood Simple, a brilliant thriller set deep in the sleazy haunts of a small Texas town. Fresh out of film school for Joel and Princeton's undergraduate Philosophy program for Ethan, Blood Simple was made on the cheap but hardly lacked in quality. Featuring one hell of a complicated plot, full of countless juicy twists and turns, Simple is a slick crime piece with elements of noir and subtle helpings of the Coen's signature dark sense of humor, seen mainly through M. Emmet Walsh's scene stealing performance as a sleazy private eye. Besides showing that the Coens could do a lot on a small budget (a mindset they continue to follow even as their notoriety rises) Blood Simple showcased these young filmmaker's fascination with early genre flicks from the dawn of the celluloid.

Proving that the brothers weren't keen on being typecast they released the quirky, sometimes surreal comedy Raising Arizona to varying critical acclaim. Those expecting another Blood Simple instead got a fantasy about a half-witted stick-up criminal H.I. McDunnough (played wonderfully by Nicolas Cage, still one of his most memorable performances) and his policewoman wife (a sharp-tongued Holly Hunter) who decide to kidnap a newborn infant (one of the "Arizona Quints") as there own. Arizona is one of those experiences best seen rather than summarized in print. The film was the Coen's first official foray into straight slapstick territory, a beloved genre they would eventual revisit again in various forms.

International Critical Acclaim:

Millers CrossingBarton FinkTo kickoff the 90s the Coens released their first pair of masterpieces, which are widely considered to be the Brothers' finest to date. Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink are worlds apart in terms of storyline and genre-Crossing being an epic prohibition era noir gangster picture and Fink, a mysterious and odd character study of a blocked theater writer working in a hellish, profit driven Hollywood circa WWII. But the two films are linked for their underlying social messages, scene stealing performances by John Turturro, perfectly scored soundtracks from Coen regular Carter Burwell, and the Coen's finest screenplays to date. Crossing's opening monologue about ethics in an unethical world by Italian crime head Johnny Caspar (the wonderful Jon Polito) or Barton Fink's plea for the theater of the proletariat are examples of the kind of clever banter the Coens are now famous for. Totally convincing arguments from sympathetic albeit ridiculous characters is a theme carried over through all of the Coen's post Crossing films.

Millers Crossing and Barton Fink were both well-received by critics and fans (although box office figures still sagged) and Fink even took the Brothers to Cannes Film Festival where they snagged not only the top Palme d'Or, but also Best Director and Best Actor, an industry first sweep of the top prizes that to this day has yet to be upset. Finally as a straight up gangster film Miller Crossing benefits from having one of the best, finely choreographed Tommy gun firefights of any modern day gangster film, set behind Irish tenor Frank Paterson's gripping rendition of the traditional "Danny Boy."




The recent wave of universal acclaim paved the way for The Hudsucker Proxy, a grand Frank Capra/Preston Sturges-eque Hollywood epic comedy, which was also the Coen's first big budget effort (a whopping $25 million). Hudsucker is often perceived as the Coens first bomb although the film is terribly underappreciated for what it is-a beautifully filmed ode to the everyman fantasy comedies of the 1940s. All the elements are there: Extravagant set pieces of New York City, lighting fast dialogue (delivered best by Jennifer Jason Leigh's Amy Archer character), quirky and surreal moments (for example the menacing Blue Letter scenario) and a nod and grin to the simple consumer products of the time ("you know, for kids").




Cult Status Coens:

FargoIt seems that every time the Coens come even remotely close to some level of failure their follow-up is a brilliant return to form, 1996s Fargo being their first. This is arguably the Coen's timeless classic, a nearly flawless film that will only improve with age. On the surface it's a brilliantly told tale about why crime doesn't pay, at its core though, its so much more. The film is as much a character piece as it is a run of the mill thriller. From the doomed nitwit Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) to Steve Buscemi's career turning performance as "kind of funning looking" small-time crook Carl Showalter, Fargo showcases the Coen's fascination with sympathetic anti-heroes. Too much has been said about the film's use of the "Minnesota Nice" dialogue and frigid backdrop, a crucial element of Fargo that does not poke fun at Minnesotans but rather pays homage (after all the Coens are natives of the Gopher State). Fargo put the Coen Brothers back at the top and granted them complete control over future projects, mainly their next one the odd but now immaculate cult favorite, The Big Lebowski.

Lebowski is arguably the Brothers' most fascinating success story. Following on the heel of Fargo this should have been a huge success but was instead panned by critics, was a flop at the box office and didn't really find its audience until its run on video where it is now a cult phenomenon (there's even an annual Lebowski Fest for hardcore fans). Most people hip to popular culture are familiar with the bizarre adventures of "The Dude", and even if you haven't actually seen the film, chances are you can draw from memory at least one of its many quotes and catchphrases.




A New Millennium Decline:

O Brother, Where Art Thou?The Coens started the new millennium with a bang. O Brother, Where Art Thou remains their biggest and most successful film to date (TBS/TNT syndication alone is proof enough). This loose adaptation of Homer's The Odyssey set in depression era middle America was a return to the screwball comedy of Hudsucker and Raising Arizona, while also serving as a time capsule for all the juicy details of life during the 1930s. From the countless tins of Dapper Dan hair pomade to Clooney's Ulysses getting banned from the Woolworth, O Brother is one of the Coen's true period pieces, despite its fictional backbone.

2001s The Man Who Wasn't There is a beautifully shot, wonderfully acted (Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Shalhoub shine) film that unfortunately lacks a truly convincing or memorable storyline. Masterful cinematographer Roger Deakins, who took the reins from Barry Sonnenfeld after Miller's Crossing, soaks the film in noir black and white standards. Pillows of cigarette smoke, characters draped with shadows, and carefully crafted 50s era set pieces make this one of the Coen's most visually stunning films to watch but its uninspired script (for Coen standards mind you) keeps the film from being one to revisit time after time.

Then came the super mainstream. Despite star studded casts and memorable moments Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers remain the Coen's most unsuccessful projects, not financially but artistically. Many link the problems plaguing the films to the fact that both were co-written from preexisting scripts (The Ladykillers being the Coen's first film remake originally slated for Barry Sonnenfeld to direct), thus not quite an original Coen vision. It can also be noted that unlike past Coen films that were set in the near or distant past, these two efforts were the most currently set.

Intolerable Cruelty was undoubtedly influenced Sturges style situational comedies brought to a modern stage. Clooney's tackles the role of Miles Massey, an overly zealous divorce attorney and forger of an immaculate prenuptial agreement, with conviction, and Catherine Zeta-Jones delivers as the gold digging thorn in his foot. Overall the film feels like nothing more than a showcase for some more firecracker dialogue, void of a truly memorable story. While people will still be quoting from Lebowski and Arizona for years to come, the chances of said timeless happening to Cruelty is slim.

Ladykillers too many visions packed into what should have been a simple comedy remake. Tom Hanks is funny as the quirky southern gentleman G.H. Dorr, Ph. D, but his over the top performance is distracting at times, never truly meshing with the supporting players. The film's inclusion of church music seems like an attempt to do for gospel what O Brother did for Americana folk and bluegrass, but again breaks the films flow. Finally Marlon Wayans, a talented actor when he wants to be (see Requiem For a Dream) turns in a performance fueled solely by in-your-face slang dialogue and predictable, unnecessary curse words that only hinder what could have been an excusable failed experiment.

Oscar Glory:

No Country For Old MenLike they did with Fargo after the misunderstood and less-revered Hudsucker Proxy, the Coen Brothers followed their two comedic outings with a mesmerizing, cold-blooded crime thriller with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. Fans of McCarthy were wide-eyed with glee when it was announced that the Coens would helm this project because it was the perfect fit.

The film was in many ways a return to form of their gritty masterpieces like Fargo and Blood Simple-part thrilling chase genre flick (the closest they've ever gotten to strict action) and part philosophical meandering on the ruthless capabilities of man. By adding an extremely subtle level of dark humor to the story (the original novel was as serious a story as they come) the Coens showed a newfound knack for adapting novels, in this case improving on the preexisting text (McCarthy fans find the book to be one of the author's minor works).

It's hard to say where Burn After Reading will fall in the Coen's gamut. From the trailers it appears to be a crime comedy with some larger than life characters to add to the long list of Coen Brothers' favorites. The return of Frances McDormand is exciting for fans as is the casting choice of John Malkovich, a well-seasoned actor who is ripe for a Coen part. What is known about the Coens of today is that they pretty much have free reign to try their hands at any type of film idea they can conjure up. With many more prime years of cinematic exploration and maturation ahead of them, it'll be interesting to see where the Coen Brothers fall in the history of motion pictures.

We at Starpulse.com like comments. Weigh in with your thoughts on which are the best, worst, underrated, overrated Coen Brothers films out there.

C. Warner Sills
Story by C. Warner Sills

Starpulse contributing writer


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