Monday, February 14, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (Minor Works)

Originally, this post was going to focus exclusively on Intolerable Cruelty (2003), the Coen Brothers' tenth film and the only one of their features that I hadn't seen prior to starting this blog.  But honestly, I can't say that that film is really interesting enough for its own entry. Knowing that the next several Coen projects were also all fairly minor, inconsequential works, I decided to lump them all together in one post, so that we could deal with their "mid-oeuvre crisis" all at once before getting back to their more vital work.

Despite their oddball surfaces, the Coens’ films have generally been based around fairly clich├ęd, if not outright banal, sitcom ideas.  The romantic comedy Intolerable Cruelty, the brothers’ first film literally based on someone else’s idea (the script is a rewrite of a never-produced screenplay by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and John Romano), reveals what a Coen film would look like without that oddball surface, and it isn’t pretty.  The plot revolves around divorce attorney George Clooney’s growing attachment to Catherine Zeta-Jones, the estranged wife of one of his clients.  This isn’t a terrible setup for a farcical romantic comedy, and Clooney at least is an ideal leading man for modern-day screwball.  But sadly he has no chemistry with Zeta-Jones, possibly because she isn’t asked to do anything other than be a shrew, and the Coens pile on so many inane plot twists, pointlessly flamboyant supporting caricatures, and shrill “observations” about the incompatibility of men and women that the main storyline has no room to breathe.  It is a mark of the film’s lack of wit that the line “we’re gonna nail his ass” is its major recurring joke.  And since Intolerable Cruelty is essentially “Coens light,” we don’t get the usual vibrant setpieces or distinctive dialogue to distract from the emptiness at the film’s core.

If Intolerable Cruelty is the nadir of the Coen Brothers’ career, The Ladykillers (2004) represents at least a slight step up.   Remaking Alexander Mackendrick’s popular Ealing Studios comedy (1955) by transplanting the action from rural England to Mississippi is an odd choice, since the original is so thoroughly British that its value to the American viewer is questionable (to my mind, Kind Hearts and Coronets {1949} is the much funnier Ealing Studios film), though the Coens deserve some credit for at least attempting to make the material their own.  A band of thieves led by Tom Hanks plot to steal the money from a riverboat casino, but are foiled at every turn by no-nonsense churchgoer Irma P. Hall, whose basement they are using as a headquarter.  The actual storyline of The Ladykillers falls mostly flat; by the time major part of the plot kicks in, with the crooks attempting to kill Hall but accidentally killing each other or themselves, it feels like too much of an afterthought to get invested in.  But the energy level is up considerably from Intolerable Cruelty, largely because the cast is clearly having a lot of fun (Hanks, in particular, is very charming in one of his increasingly rare comedic roles) and the story isn’t weighted down with too many tangential characters.  T-Bone Burnett, working with the Coens for the first time since O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), provides a fine gospel and Southern hip hop soundtrack, though it isn’t as well-integrated into the film as their past collaborations were.  It would be a stretch to call The Ladykillers a return to form, and it is certainly one of the Coens’ weakest films, but it does have its moments.

Perhaps recognizing that they’d hit a dead end with their recent, relatively conventional feature films, the Coen Brothers next worked on two different short films.  Tuileries (2006) is their six-minute contribution to the anthology film Paris, je t’aime, while World Cinema (2007) is a three-minute piece commissioned as a pre-film short for the Cannes Film Festival.  Tuileries follows tourist Steve Buscemi as he is tormented by a hostile couple whose language he doesn’t understand, a child shooting spitballs at him, and a tourist manual that suggests all of the terrible things that could potentially happen to him while on vacation.  World Cinema has cowboy Josh Brolin torn between seeing Rules of the Game (1939) and Climates (2006) at an indie theatre.  Neither short transcends its one-joke premise, but they each make good use of their stars’ put-upon demeanors, and it is somewhat refreshing to find the Coens doing something simple that they aren’t pretending is complicated.

UP NEXT  No Country for Old Men

No comments:

Post a Comment