The Falsely Anointed Coen Brothers

The Coen brothers are fanciful filmmakers. Their films are always interesting, but each one is less ambitious than it should be, coming from a pair of such talent.

In each Coen brothers movie I can think of, there are several characteristics that define the film. In order to lend their films a sense of uniqueness, they choose theme, setting, and tone very carefully, and then maintain a tight control over the parameters so that their films do not wander. To choose an arbitrary example from their recent oeuvre:

In “Burn After Reading,” the characters are all dimwits caught in a vague bureaucracy. The tone is uniformly one of a black comedy, which portrays the characters in various stages of disarray and doesn’t allow them to grow or have an effect on their environment. There’s snappy dialogue and silly costumes, and the actors feel liberated enough to inject a refreshing amount of quirkiness into their roles. The plot, however, relies heavily on chance and coincidence. None of the characters are especially likable, nor do they resemble any sort of person you could expect to meet in real life. They’re caricatures, and this isn’t the fault of the actors. It’s clear that this is what the Coen brothers intended, and they control each element of their films so carefully that it’s clear they were striving for caricature.

The film is simple, and although the Coen brothers prove again that they can direct a tight, snappy movie, the only thing that elevates it from mediocrity is the performances. Even the performances are inherently limited, based on the two-dimensional characterization that the script provides. The pacing is so tightly wound that it doesn’t allow anyone to breathe.

“Burn After Reading” was perhaps a case of post-Oscar ennui. But I actually think it’s one of their best. Many of their films suffer from the same issues: weak characterization, and overly specific, quirky settings. These elements create attractive facades, which are usually able to mask the fact that the films have nothing profounder going on at their cores. “Burn After Reading,” within the brothers’ self-imposed constraints, was rather carefree, and it embraced its own lack of profundity. For this reason, I liked it more than usual.

The Big Lebowski” is deceptively simple as well. It is about cosmic coincidences inflicted upon the poor Dude, a character with no discernible qualities beyond a gravelly-voiced, smoked-out, perplexed reaction to each crazy thing that happens to him. Lebowski wanders through the movie, surprised at each curveball the universe throws him. The strangeness of the plot, and the memorable, (again) two-dimensional supporting cast, once again masks the fact that nothing lies at the film’s core. The movie is inhabited with caricatures – Euro-nihilists, a ruthless tycoon, a furious, absurd war veteran. It’s a hysterically funny movie, but it is nearly impossible to relate to anything that transpires. No number of trippy dream sequences can make me shake the feeling that none of it really matters. As a comedy, perhaps it shouldn’t. But they seem to be trying to make a point about the universe, so I wonder why they didn’t make it more emphatically or more gracefully.

The Coen brothers sometimes seem to be aspiring to something profound. There are themes of great consequence in their films, but they don’t deal with those themes in any real, substantial way. The theme just floats in the background, apparent to anyone, and yet not illuminated in relation to the events of the film. The actual story of each movie – the reality that each movie creates – doesn’t have enough in common with the real world, nor with real people, to actually engage the theme.

In “Fargo,” a rash decision by a destitute car salesman sets off a chain of events stranger than he could have imagined. Bizarre dialogue, amusing accents, a pregnant police chief, creative violence – all of these elements are delightful ornaments, and they combine to make a tremendously enjoyable film. But assembled together, they act as the substance of the movie, which undermines the film’s potential for transcendence. “Fargo” is a perfect black comedy, but one without an edge. They aren’t mocking anything real, except perhaps the Dakotan accent. Black comedies that lack a satirical angle have low ceilings. Just because the characters are stupid doesn’t mean the film is saying anything interesting about humanity.

Even “No Country for Old Men,” their most institutionally lauded, relies on a device to drive the plot: the suitcase of money. Javier Bardem makes a fantastic villain, but the characters he’s chasing are of no special interest. The beautiful, stark scenery, old western feel, and graphic violence combine to make the film memorable. However, simply mashing standard cinematic qualities together in strange ways doesn’t make a great film. Or even an especially original one, for that matter. The most profound thing about the movie is its title. As with many of their films, its cinematic elements are tightly controlled, even flawless. “No Country for Old Men” is tense and rather compelling, because they are so good at manipulating cinematic conventions into something fresh. Many of the shots have a poetic quality that suggests that if they wanted to make a timeless film, they could. And yet, without compelling characters generating true pathos, it will remain a stunning act of fancy.

The films of the Coen brothers easily fall into categories, even as they strive to break free from them. The sum of each movie’s parts creates something unique in a Hollywood sense – a fresh, perhaps genre-twisting take on a theme or collection of themes. All I see, however, is a collection of interesting ideas:

The Man Who Wasn’t There“: Film Noir, shot in black and white, filmed with dreamlike disconnect, with a stoic protagonist who finally takes action after years of taking life as it came. I can tell, to a large extent, exactly what they intended. They execute it artfully, but they control it, and the actors don’t breathe through the screen as they should. I can see them telling Billy Bob Thornton, “no, Billy Bob, do less. You’re not supposed to be there. No facial expressions.” And as a result, the main character barely seems to be there at all. It’s an intriguing conceit, but why not create a more compelling protagonist? I refuse to believe that they can squeeze profundity out of a two-dimensional character who resembles no one from the real world. It’s not a distillation, it’s a caricature – of the type of person who has settled into his own ennui.

Raising Arizona“: Colorfully absurd comedy. Features a batty cast of characters. Again, I can see exactly what they’re trying for here. It’s admirable that they do it so well, but still.

This film generates true pathos, however, which is rare for the Coen brothers. Hi and Ed’s desire for a baby gives them a dimension not usually found in characters in the Coen brothers’ movies. Strangely enough, I can relate to mustachioed, hawaiian shirted Nic Cage, and faux-honest cop Holly Hunter, more than I can relate to anyone else in any other film they have made. This, I have to believe, says something about their ability to create enduring characterizations.

A Serious Man“: An entirely Jewish film. Again, I can tell they decided something at the outset and stuck to it. “Hey, let’s do a Jewish movie! We’d better be thorough!” Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it goes right along with their insistence on picking a specific niche of society to film. The whole movie takes place in a nondescript Jewish enclave or some sort. There’s nothing wrong with a unique setting, but I’d like them to make a movie about real people.

The plot? A weak man is caught up in circumstance. In practically every one of their films, you can see helpless characters struggle against the forces of the universe that are conspiring against them. This one is no different.

There is something ineffable dancing about at the center of this movie, and it’s livelier than most of their other films. It’s their most defiantly weird movie, though, which probably explains why its theme seems ungraspable. In the end, it still comes down to chance, the snickering puppeteer. AKA the Coen brothers themselves.

Their films are funny, strange, and often unique, but they don’t approximate real life in any way. This is fine. But so many of it feels superficial. Over a dozen films deep, and lacking a dynamic universe of their own cinematic creation, their films don’t contain the profundity that I look for in the best directors of the world. Existential themes are occasionally at play, but the brothers don’t seem to want to meditate on them. Their themes – human clumsiness, helplessness, and absurdity – don’t resonate with me nearly as strongly as, say, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia,” which grapples with the same themes, does. In “Magnolia,” these themes, along with the tried-and-true Coen theme of chance, are animated by the film’s approximation of real life. The characters are believable, so their helplessness has gravity. And they occupy an environment that is something more than an adult fairy tale.

Another PT Anderson movie, “There Will Be Blood,” was up for Best Picture in the same year as the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men.” I won’t claim “There Will Be Blood” is a better movie, but it was thematically ambitious in a way that I wish the brothers would learn from. Some might say that PT Anderson is too ambitious; I could agree. But “Boogie Nights” is better than anything the Coen brothers will ever make. Don’t we want our best filmmakers to be ambitious, instead of sticking to a distortion of the formula they’ve been toying with since day one? They should start by beginning to ignore genre. Perhaps then they might create something that qualifies as more than “interesting.”

Continuing to create fanciful enigmas will only get them so far.

(P.S. I haven’t seen “Blood Simple” in a while, but from what I can recall, it’s among their most original films. This isn’t much of a surprise. Since then, distinct patterns emerge over the course of their oeuvre that are hard to ignore. Each film is definitely a “Coen brothers” movie, but when they’re all stamped with similar traits, a distinct dearth of creativity becomes apparent. To someone like me, a film enthusiast by nature, disappointment is one of the prevailing sentiments. They are virtuoso filmmakers in certain ways, and yet they are caught up in their own fancies.

If you like spotting trends in a filmmaker, you probably love the Coen brothers. I don’t – I loathe convention, and the only genre movies I truly adore are the kind that shine despite their genre, not because of how they work within it.)

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