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Guilty of wanting to be a dry cleaner, sure. But not of murder.
March 28, 2014 10:18 AM   Subscribe

Because the Coens have tried their hand at numerous genres, from noir to screwball to outright surrealism, it wasn’t immediately apparent that they were making the same basic movie over and over. After 30 years and 16 features, however, it’s now hard not to notice that prototypical Coen protagonists are hapless, well-meaning schlemiels upon whom life exacts a toll that’s much worse than they deserve. In the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, it’s a hard world for little things (and everyone else)
posted by timshel (74 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Some day I will give The House Next Door the video essay I've promised them for years, arguing that the Coens' The Ladykillers is massively underrated, an American comedy equivalent to a Bergman film, all about how good can survive in a world where God is blind.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:31 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


Wasn't that also a big theme in many of Hitchcock's movies ? Joe Everyman who somehow finds them self through the looking glass ?
posted by k5.user at 10:33 AM on March 28


We're all, as a culture, just quietly pretending Intolerable Cruelty never happened, right?
posted by The Whelk at 10:36 AM on March 28 [12 favorites]


I'm always surprised by how quickly cinephiles interject "...yeah, but The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty!!" into Coen-related conversations. Neither movie is as bad as people make them out to be and I think it's a Tall Poppy thing.
posted by timshel at 10:37 AM on March 28 [8 favorites]


K5, that's exactly what I came in note. I completely agree.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:38 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


I still blame them for Garfield.
posted by Strange Interlude at 10:39 AM on March 28 [6 favorites]


I really liked Intolerable Cruelty and I use Heinz, the Baron Klaus von Espy as my go-to name when filling out forms.

Though he's usually Klaus von Testy at that point.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 10:39 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


The Ladykillers is massively underrated

Any film that contains the line, "That boy right there, he plays one bitch barrel full of a sackbut!" is a winner in my book
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:41 AM on March 28


We're all, as a culture, just quietly pretending Intolerable Cruelty never happened, right?

Are you .. Wheezy Joe?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:45 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


The 'dude and I just watched Intolerable Cruelty for the first time and it wasn't bad. I think people assume it was bad because it has Catherine Zeta Jones in it, but IMO her comedic sense is very underrated.
posted by muddgirl at 10:46 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


Intolerable Cruelty always seemed to me to be as close to the screwball romantic comedies from the 30s that Clooney was clearly born to be in as we are going to get in this age and I never got the hatred for it.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:48 AM on March 28 [15 favorites]


I don't think they make same movie. It's just the same world view -- and it's a view big enough to handle their whole IMDB list.

Intolerable Cruelty is just fine. Billy Bob Thornton nailed it.

Honest question: Explain why Ladykillers is good. My partner was a huge Coen fan but he hated it so much, he dragged me out 2/3 through.
posted by mochapickle at 10:50 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


I did like how they described a whole run of thier movies as the "George Clooney is an idiot" series. And Burn After Reading is one of the most cynical, bleakest things I've ever seen in a mainstream picture.

Ladykillers is alight
posted by The Whelk at 10:51 AM on March 28


I liked Intolerable Cruelty too. They certainly nailed the aged, creaky, senior partner ensconced in his big office with wheezing, hacking cough. Every law firm I've worked at has had one of those.
posted by ambrosia at 10:54 AM on March 28


Explain why Ladykillers is good.

Try replicating any one of Hanks' speeches from that movie, with even 10% of the verve and gusto that he just absolutely goddamn hammers into every. single. word., and you're forced to realize that despite the IBS jokes and the persistent off-note of a Wayans running rampant, that movie contains an insanely bravua performance from an actor at the top of his game that had absolutely no sane reason to risk as much as he did.
posted by Shepherd at 10:54 AM on March 28 [8 favorites]


Man, if you don't like the Ladykillers, you just don't like fun.
posted by echo target at 10:58 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


I'll go ahead and cast my vote as
Intolerable Cruelty: yea
The Ladykillers: nay, or more accurately HELL NO.

How anyone allowed Hanks to continue on like that day after day is inconceivable. There were so many around him and no one had the heart to stop the proceedings.

And I agree completely with Ghostride The Whip in re: Clooney and 30s screwball comedies.
posted by komara at 11:00 AM on March 28


There is also the point in every Coen Brothers thread when I remind myself it's been X since I've seen The Hudsucker Proxy and I should watch it again where X is any time period from a decade to literally 5 seconds ago.
posted by The Whelk at 11:01 AM on March 28 [19 favorites]


I did like how they described a whole run of thier movies as the "George Clooney is an idiot" series.

I think you can describe a large portion of their movies as "________ is an idiot". It seems like one of their basic M.O.s when not working from other source material is to pick a time and place, and populate it with idiots reflecting the genius loci of that time and place. That would hold true for Raising Arizona, Fargo, Lebowski, Hudscuker, O Brother, Intolerable Cruelty, A Simple Man, The Man Who Wasn't There... I'm also guessing Ladykillers, but I haven't seen it.
posted by LionIndex at 11:04 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


Intolerable Cruelty is basically a Preston Sturges movie with a more modern sensibility to it, yeah. I avoided it for a while, and then at my mother-in-law's place we were trying to find a movie to watch, and she had it and I'm like "eh, how bad can a Coen Bros. movie actually be" and it was alright. I think it suffered from its ad campaign in the same way Hudson Hawk suffered, but it was legitimately enjoyable in a way that Hudson Hawk isn't.

They certainly nailed the aged, creaky, senior partner ensconced in his big office with wheezing, hacking cough.

Is there a Coen Bros. movie that does not have an Imposing Man Behind A Desk? I think it's one of their trademarks. I'm actually having trouble thinking of a movie of theirs that doesn't have that character.
posted by griphus at 11:05 AM on March 28


"I'm also guessing Ladykillers, but I haven't seen it."

Cherish this time in your life.
posted by komara at 11:05 AM on March 28 [2 favorites]


From Wikipedia:
Burn After Reading is the third Coen brothers film for Clooney (O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty), who acknowledged that he usually plays a fool in their movies: "I've done three films with them and they call it my trilogy of idiots."[15] Joel said after the last scene was shot, "George said: 'OK, I’ve played my last idiot!' So I guess he won’t be working with us again."[16]
posted by griphus at 11:06 AM on March 28 [2 favorites]


Also I saw Ladykillers three times in a row. Thanks air travel.
posted by griphus at 11:06 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


Is there a Coen Bros. movie that does not have an Imposing Man Behind A Desk? I think it's one of their trademarks. I'm actually having trouble thinking of a movie of theirs that doesn't have that character.

Even the big exceptions to my "idiots" list have that - Stephen Root in No Country for Old Men, and whatever guy in True Grit that the girl drives a really hard bargain with.

Cherish this time in your life.

Someone's going to force me to watch it?
posted by LionIndex at 11:08 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


It’s taken the better part of three decades for people to catch on to the strain of sorrowful pessimism in the Coen brothers’ work, or at least to grudgingly accept it.

Speak for yourself. That's why I've always loved them.
posted by Devils Rancher at 11:08 AM on March 28 [2 favorites]


George said: 'OK, I’ve played my last idiot!'

But he plays a great idiot! He and Pitt were amazing (along with everyone else). I still occasionally think I've got time to get a run in. When I'm not concerned with the security of my shit.
posted by echo target at 11:13 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading has my favorite dance scenes from a movie that doesn't star Sam Rockwell.
posted by troika at 11:15 AM on March 28 [5 favorites]


Is there a good essay on Burn After Reading somewhere? I've seen it twice now, and I enjoyed it both times but I just don't get it. Like the puzzle pieces all fit but I can't figure out what I'm looking at a picture of.
posted by griphus at 11:17 AM on March 28 [2 favorites]


I know Brad Pitt can play Crazy very well but I've never enjoyed him as much as when he's playing Vacuous Ninny.
posted by The Whelk at 11:18 AM on March 28


(I thought it was to conspiracy theories and paranoid intelligence gathering what Dr. Strangelove was to Cold War paranoia and M.A.D absurdity. )
posted by The Whelk at 11:20 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


Like the puzzle pieces all fit but I can't figure out what I'm looking at a picture of.

Isn't it kind of Lebowski from the nihilist's point of view?
posted by LionIndex at 11:23 AM on March 28 [3 favorites]


I've seen it twice now, and I enjoyed it both times but I just don't get it. Like the puzzle pieces all fit but I can't figure out what I'm looking at a picture of.

"What did we learn, Palmer?"
"I don't know, sir."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:25 AM on March 28 [4 favorites]


I'm always surprised by how quickly cinephiles interject "...yeah, but The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty!!" into Coen-related conversations. Neither movie is as bad as people make them out to be and I think it's a Tall Poppy thing.

True enough. These are, I think, the only Coen Bros. flicks I have not seen more than once (Well... Inside Llewyn Davis as well, but that is because it is relatively recent and I live in a Frozen in 3D sort of town) and I view them as kind of minor. Of course, almost anything looks minor when held against No Country and The Big Lebowski and True Grit and Blood Simple.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:31 AM on March 28 [2 favorites]


Okay here's my theory: Burn After Reading was a bit in the tradition of 18th century French novels, where everything is a prelude to something that never happens, a la The Crying of Lot 49
posted by angrycat at 11:33 AM on March 28 [4 favorites]


I don't know, I thought Llewyn Davis deserved everything that happened to him.
posted by spitbull at 11:47 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


I liked Todd Alcott's opinion that True Grit shows how unflinching, rigid moral codes curdle and calcify people who follow them unquestionably (Or, what's cute and gutsy in a ten year old is less endearing if she keeps doing this kind of stuff all through her life.) Plus the frontier turning all people into either degenerate outlaws or unmoving totems of grim Presbyterianism.
posted by The Whelk at 11:52 AM on March 28 [2 favorites]


but it was legitimately enjoyable in a way that Hudson Hawk isn't.

I will beat you silly with a rolled-up Buckaroo Banzai script.
posted by phearlez at 12:02 PM on March 28 [2 favorites]


I have not once been able to sit through Buckaroo Banzai.

BRING IT
posted by griphus at 12:05 PM on March 28 [5 favorites]


So I remember really liking The Ladykillers when I saw the original as a kid. Is the remake that different, or is my opinion of the first a good indicator as to how much I'd like the second?
posted by nickmark at 12:07 PM on March 28


I will beat you silly with a rolled-up Buckaroo Banzai script.

Hey, somebody finally found a use for that thing!
I kid, I kid
posted by IAmUnaware at 12:08 PM on March 28 [4 favorites]


Is the remake that different, or is my opinion of the first a good indicator as to how much I'd like the second?

I wish they had a term in Hollywood closer to the musical term "cover," because it's much less a straight remake and more of a cover and is just very, very much a Coen Bros. movie with the farce turned up to 11.
posted by griphus at 12:20 PM on March 28


Intolerable Cruelty always seemed to me to be as close to the screwball romantic comedies from the 30s that Clooney was clearly born to be in as we are going to get in this age

I mean, if people are going to remake shit all the time for no reason, they could do far worse than try to do His Girl Friday with Clooney as Walter.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 12:24 PM on March 28 [7 favorites]


Oh my god Scarlett Johansson as Hildy.
posted by griphus at 12:28 PM on March 28 [3 favorites]


i do not know how to feel about that but I would watch it
posted by The Whelk at 12:29 PM on March 28


I have not once been able to sit through Buckaroo Banzai.

Buckaroo Banzai is the most perfect movie ever made, for a world that is better than this one.
posted by Shepherd at 12:31 PM on March 28 [11 favorites]


The Ladykillers might have been ... adequate ... had it not been a remake of one of the great comedies of all time. Guinness, Sellers, and Lom together -- what can stand against that? What director of sound mind and body would dare attempt even to equal it?

Taken together with their True Grit, which was a good movie but a lesser one than the original, it suggests that the Coens are best advised to avoid remakes.

(And I quite like Intolerable Cruelty, which is a fine showcase for the sort of hapless nitwits they craft so well.)
posted by McCoy Pauley at 12:42 PM on March 28


I mean, if people are going to remake shit all the time for no reason, they could do far worse than try to do His Girl Friday with Clooney as Walter.

There's a universe out there where some alternate Clooney just gives in and embraces being the Cary Grantiest thing since Cary Grant and I want to see those movies. Clooney in Fantastic Mr. Fox mode prowling around rooftops in a remake of To Catch a Thief? Yes, please.
posted by jason_steakums at 12:45 PM on March 28 [5 favorites]


Oh, man, I just realized that I want the Coens to remake The Thin Man, with George Clooney as Nick and I'm spacing on good casting for Nora at the moment.

Just because I can't think of any other directors who would be able to pull off "endearingly drunk" in 2014.
posted by griphus at 1:15 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]


(Jennifer Lawrence maybe?)
posted by griphus at 1:16 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]


The problem with that is that Jennifer Lawrence is 29 years Clooney's junior.

I feel like Julianne Moore, Viola Davis, or Catherine Keener would be great Noras, though.
posted by troika at 1:22 PM on March 28 [2 favorites]


I actually think Julia Louis-Dryfuss would *nail* it.
posted by The Whelk at 1:24 PM on March 28 [3 favorites]


Okay here's my theory: Burn After Reading was a bit in the tradition of 18th century French novels, where everything is a prelude to something that never happens, a la The Crying of Lot 49

As the article suggests, I've always seen Burn After Reading as a typical Coen "criminal enterprise gone awry" plot, but played as farce. Instead of having just a couple characters who are lacking important pieces of information going on around them, they have a dozen, all leading up to that wonderful final exchange at the CIA.
posted by Bromius at 1:27 PM on March 28


I've been a big fan of the Coen brothers since seeing Blood Simple in its initial run, and Inside Llewyn Davis is their first move I had absolutely no interest in seeing. I didn't end up liking The Ladykillers or A Serious Man very much, but I looked forward to seeing them. Millers Crossing is probably my favorite, and The Man Who Wasn’t There is one of their most overlooked movies.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:53 PM on March 28


The problem with that is that Jennifer Lawrence is 29 years Clooney's junior.

Yeah, I mean Nick is supposed to be clearly well into early-retirement middle age and Nora in her very early 30s, but William Powell was only 13 years older than Myrna Loy so yeah Jennifer Lawrence would be too young

Those actresses would work only if they give up the May-December thing, but then keeping up Nora's character would make her, I dunno, arrested development-y? Not that age is any sort of indication of inherent vibrancy, but the whole thing about Nick and Nora is that overlap between Nick's world-weariness and Nora's half-affected ingénue(ness?)
posted by griphus at 1:55 PM on March 28


Flip genders and pair a world-weary JLD-type with, say, Channing Tatum? I am SO ON BOARD

I am also convinced we're about 5 years out from Best Actor Channing Tatum, ymmv.
posted by troika at 1:58 PM on March 28


Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Nora. Let's do this.
posted by griphus at 2:01 PM on March 28 [7 favorites]


As much as I love the Coen brothers, I think this overview is onto something -- many of their films do have aimless sections and second-half letdowns. Anyway, despite their antipathy for the tonal mix in Fargo, I think it's still their best film (and Miller's Crossing remains my favorite). It's an apotheosis of what seems to be another, or a more interesting, common thread in their work, which is a seeming intent to create an American cinema around the uncinematic. Sometimes this impulse results in something being filmed that was, perhaps correctly, unfilmable. Sometimes, as in Lebowski, this works wonderfully. Other times, not so much.
posted by dhartung at 2:03 PM on March 28



Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Nora. Let's do this.

he would be so whimsical
posted by The Whelk at 2:06 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]


Eh, a bunch of the stuff about Fargo just rings false to me (both in this article and in other articles by the same author). And as always with discussions about Fargo I'm left wondering why there is no discussion of William H. Macy's performance as Jerry Lundegaard. One of the greatest parts of the movie for me was a slow realization that Lundegaard is not just pathetic, not just a weasel, he's really an absolutely evil person. The two killers are the in-your-face bad guys, but by the end of the movie I wasn't thinking about them, I was thinking about Lundegaard's absolute amorality and self-absorption.
posted by madmethods at 2:08 PM on March 28 [10 favorites]


Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Nora.
This would prevent him from making the Sandman movie, so I am very much on board for this.
posted by pxe2000 at 2:09 PM on March 28


Inside Llewyn Davis is their first move I had absolutely no interest in seeing.

Do you mean again, or in the first place? I saw it & True Grit this weekend, and was not too impressed with True Grit, but thought Inside Llewyn Davis fit very well amongst their other films. A lot of the reviews have missed the mark, from what I've read. The protagonist isn't just an asshole who gets what he deserves though karma -- he's a lot more complex than that. Sure he bemoans his fate while causing it, but it's a good meditation on why people feel so put upon by life, and it left me with plenty to think about. It also has some great bit parts scattered throughout, & the script, as usual, always advances the story. I thought it was quite well scripted.
posted by Devils Rancher at 2:11 PM on March 28


I was thinking about Lundegaard's absolute amorality and self-absorption.

His little tantrum with the ice scraper in the parking lot is one of my favorite moments of acting of all time. He's totally fucked his wife & kid over, is just so pissed at what is happening to him! So much said in such a little moment.
posted by Devils Rancher at 2:23 PM on March 28 [6 favorites]


His little tantrum with the ice scraper in the parking lot is one of my favorite moments of acting of all time

Heh, synchronicity. Our own (sorry NPR, we're claiming her) Linda Holmes just posted this little delight today.
posted by phearlez at 3:09 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]


Explain why Ladykillers is good.

Madam, we must have waffles!

On the other hand, everything that isn't Hanks chewing on every scrap of scenery he can get his teeth around is fairly forgettable.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:50 PM on March 28


I feel like Julianne Moore, Viola Davis, or Catherine Keener would be great Noras, though.
I actually think Julia Louis-Dryfuss would *nail* it.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Nora.


Um, Paget Brewster anyone? She's only been playing Nora Charles, oops, I mean Sadie Doyle since 2005.
posted by KingEdRa at 6:22 PM on March 28 [3 favorites]


Do you mean again, or in the first place?

In the first place. I haven't seen Inside Llewyn Davis and don't plan to. It's odd after 30 years of looking forward to their next movie but it doesn't interest me at all.

On the other hand, I liked True Grit a lot.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:24 PM on March 28



I don't know, I thought Llewyn Davis deserved everything that happened to him.

I find it odd that so many people dismiss Llewyn as a jerk when he's much more complex than that. I mean, jerks don't carry cats on the subway or pay for their lovers' abortions or have nephews that leave them sweet Etch-a-Sketch notes. The man's partner jumped off a bridge. That would mess up anyone pretty good. On top of that he's broke and homeless and seeing more vapid and silly musical acts get more acclaim than he. Sure, he creates his own problems but he also can't catch a break -or when he does, the timing is bad.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:28 PM on March 28 [5 favorites]


Yeah, it seems weird to me to dismiss Davis as a jerk. Davis is in a really bad place. He's broke, nearly homeless, and the person he was closest to has just committed suicide. Most of his bad behavior is obviously a reaction to a grief he hasn't even started processing; the whole "I'm a goddamn professional" explosion was pretty transparently a reaction to Lilian singing his dead partner's harmonies, as even Lillian acknowledges. He shouldn't have slept with his buddy's wife, but as Davis says (and as Jean refuses to acknowledge) that was hardly a unilateral action. Maybe he would have been wise to take Grossman's advice, but considering that he just lost a partner to suicide, he's understandably reluctant to sing with someone else.

Much of the hatred aimed at Davis seems to me to be Just World Fallacy in action. He's doing so badly that we just have to believe he's done something to deserve it. This was also a big factor in the reception of A Serious Man, so it's interesting to see it recur.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:52 AM on March 31 [3 favorites]


Shepherd: "Buckaroo Banzai is the most perfect movie ever made, for a world that is better than this one."

You misspelled "The Blues Brothers".

It's an understandable mistake. They are quite similar, both being platonic solids of celluloid and whatnot.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:44 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]


So because of this thread, I went ahead and watched Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, the two movies mentioned that I hadn't already seen.

Worst. Movie night. Ever.
posted by ceribus peribus at 4:41 PM on March 31 [2 favorites]


Because of this thread, I re-watched Fargo and noticed Norm Gunderson's little mini plot line for the first time.
posted by muddgirl at 5:02 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]


Wow, I really do have to do that "Why The Ladykillers Is A Great Movie" essay now.

I also love Intolerable Cruelty ("She was found by her Pilates instructor!") but I don't think that one needs me as much.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 12:12 PM on April 1


The first seven minutes. Feeling the BB ghost harder than ever.
posted by maggieb at 12:20 PM on April 6


Sepinwall agrees: (There are moments where the show owes as much to "Breaking Bad" as it does to the film.)
posted by maggieb at 9:59 PM on April 15


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