Wednesday, August 15, 2012
The Good, The Bland, and The Ugly: The Coen Brothers
Posted by Courtney Small
The premise of this is simple: if someone, who knows little about the director/actor/etc. in question, asked you to select one film for each of the following three categories below what films would they be?:
1) The Good – A film they should seek out right away
2) The Bland – Not among the best, but still a film they should see.
3) The Ugly – If pressed for time, this is the one film that they should skip in order to squeeze in more hours for the top works.
Keeping this in mind, my three would be as follows:
The Good – I had to think long and hard about this one as there are so many to choose from. Ultimately I went with Fargo, easily the most obvious choice. However, I think the film best encapsulates all of various elements that make films by the Coen brothers so satisfying. There are elements of betrayal, dark humour, quirky characters, emphasis on locations, and simple criminal plots that go horribly wrong. The film was only released in 1996, but has left a lasting mark on cinema thanks in part to some iconic scenes (most notably the wood chipper) and truly memorable characters. The most memorable of which is a seven month pregnant Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), a police officer who inadvertently stumbles on an elaborate kidnapping plot while tracking down two murders (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare). Of course, as with many kidnapping plots, murder was never suppose to be in the cards. Cash-strapped cars salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) merely hired the two men to stage his wife’s kidnapping in order for Lundegaard to collect the ransom money from his wealthy father-in-law. In most Coen brother films there is usually a character who comes up with schemes that are so simple that they should not fail. However, as Fargo shows, in the world of the Coen brothers nothing is ever simple.
The Bland – I was tempted to say the romantic comedy Intolerable Cruelty, but I have to go with The Hudsucker Proxy. Out of all the Coen films, this is the one that I think gets panned unfairly. While far from their best film, I have always found The Hudsucker Proxy to be an entertaining comedy. Granted it is a little hard to believe that a smart business man like Sidney J. Mussburger could not find a better way to pull off a stock related scam than tricking Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) into running the company into the ground. Keep in mind though that realism was not what the Coens were aiming for. The Hudsucker Proxy is a comedy that is more style than substance but sometimes, for a zany comedy like this, depth is not always required.
The Ugly – This was actually a rather easy choice as only two films fall into this category for me. The first is The Ladykillers, which is slowly getting better upon repeat viewings. The other film, which has not fared as well, is Burn After Reading. It is the most disappointing of all the films in the Coens body of work. Despite the numerous talented actors casted in the film, Burn After Reading never came together for me on the whole. The main story revolves around two gym employees (Brad Pitt and France McDormand) who come in possession of a CD that they mistakenly believe contains sensitive government material. The pair concocts a get rich quick scheme that involves blackmailing a former CIA analyst, Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), who created the CD. Unfortunately for Cox he must not only deal withthe two dimwitted blackmailers, but also a divorce that his cheating wife (Tilda Swinton) has filed for. While the film has its moments here and there, most of which involve Brad Pitt, I did not find this black comedy anywhere near as good as the other films in the Coen’s catalogue. Unlike most of their other films, the Coens do not juggle the multiple story threads as well as you would expect. As a result Burn After Reading feels like a film without a true sense of identity.
What films would you select for each category? Let us know in the comments section.