The Coen Brothers AGain

Outside of Martin Scorsese, there are very few clean slates in Hollywood – and even He has Bringing Out The Dead blotting his copybook (discuss…).  The Coen brothers though, have created an unbroken conga-line of stunningly original movies, mixing and mastering genres, and even creating new ones.

If there was a bump in the road in 1994 time, it seems, has since been kind to The Hudsucker Proxy.  A bigger budget (courtesy of ’80s alpha-producer Joel Silver) and an initially unresponsive family audience had it labelled as the Coen’s first flop, but watched now its pleasures are myriad and unmistakably Coenesque (including a great, late-vintage performance from Paul Newman).

Paul Newman and Tim Robbins Hudsucker Proxy

The Coens announced themselves to the world in 1984 with the instant neo-noir classic, Blood Simple.  Now, just mull the following subsequent film titles over in your mind like a mouthful of Chateau Petrus.   Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There.  Has anyone ever maintained such a lengthy spell of artistic excellence?

By 2003, the Coens were lauded by critics and cinephiles around the world and their movies were now major events, anticipated with bated breath, but two decades after their their astonishing debut, the unthinkable suddenly happened: they released a perfectly average film.  Now, an average Coen film still stands head and shoulders above most Hollywood output.  Kevin James would personally harvest his own kidneys for a chance to star in a comedy as classy as Intolerable Cruelty.  Upon its release in 2003 though, the collective response to The New Coen Brothers Movie was, terrifyingly, a soft shrug of indifference.

Confounding critics and their own fans alike, the Coens’ modus operandi had been to follow up one movie by bolting in the other direction with the next.  After Intolerable Cruelty however, they stuck to broad comedy with their first remake, The Ladykillers: by quite a stretch the worst film in their canon.  For the first time, it seemed, these masters of cinema had displayed clay feet and at the time, it seemed plausible that their golden touch had deserted them forever.

The biggest factor uniting both Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers was that neither projects originated with the Coens.  The Intolerable Cruelty project had been passed from pillar to post throughout most of the 1990s.  The script by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone was originally developed with director Andrew Bergman in mind, as a reunion of Pretty Woman stars Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.

Joel and Ethan Coen were brought in to rewrite the script, by which point both Ron Howard and Jonathan Demme were sniffing around.  Demme had wanted to put Julia Roberts up against Hugh Grant as respectively, the litigious divorcee and the high-powered lawyer who falls for her charms.  This was the kind of movie it always was: a high-concept, big star, Hollywood rom-com.  All well and good, but not the kind of thing that would entice the Coens into their double-seated director’s chair.  In any case, they were busy working on a much loftier work, an adaptation of James Dickey’s WWII novel, To The White Sea, starring Brad Pitt.

‘That one went down the old drainerino,’ Joel Coen told Smriti Mundhra, waxing Flanders.  Announced in the press as Pitt’s next project after the upcoming Ocean’s Eleven, To The White Sea crashed and burned before Pitt was even fitted for his pilot’s uniform.  ‘It was really a budget thing at the end of the day,’ Coen continued.  ‘It came to a point where we had to radically reconceive how we were going to shoot the movie or move onto something else.’  Their green-light switched off, the Coens suddenly had an unexpected gaping hole where their next film project was supposed to be.  With Intolerable Cruelty still languishing at Universal, producer Brian Grazer smelled an opportunity and asked them to direct.  They agreed, on the condition that their O Brother star, George Clooney would play the lead.

Intolerable Cruelty

The Coen’s final rewrite shaped the film more directly towards their own unique style – it’s hard to image anyone else settling on character names like Gus Petch, Rex Rexroth and Ollie Olerud.  Rather than a straight-up, battle of the sexes romantic comedy, it wore the clothes of a smart-patter, 1940s Howard Hawks farce.  This, perhaps sowed the seeds of audience disaffection.  Screwball comedy is a notorious divider of appeal: to some, it’s one of the 20th century’s great art-forms, perfected by few; to others, it is maddeningly mannered and overplayed (audiences had been similarly unimpressed with the Coen-scripted, Sam Raimi-directed screwball comedy Crimewave in 1983).

What left the critics underwhelmed, I suspect, was the palpable feeling of compromise and the once-unimaginable whiff of studio interference.  There are still big laughs to be had though.  Clooney’s klutzy performance is a joyous idiot-ballet and his chemistry with Catherine Zeta Jones bubbles like boiling perfume.  I further submit that the magazine cover for Life Without Intestines is flat-out one of the funniest things I have ever seen.  Ultimately, like Kubrick’s Spartacus, this felt like a project that they never had complete ownership of and their semi-interest was hard to hide…which made their next project all the more baffling.

The Ladykillers Coen Brothers

To direct a remake in the first place was a backwards step, when their sure-footed magpie tendency of creating dazzling innovation from borrowed homages made such a thing pointless.  To remake a classic, beloved, frankly flawless film like Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers seemed a perverse, almost suicidal undertaking.  It was ‘Not a remake,’ claimed Ethan Coen at the time.  ‘We considered it a theft from the literary source, not a remake of the movie.’

Moreover, like Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers was only supposed to be a scriptwriting gig: in this case for their one-time cinematographer, now hot-shot Men in Black director Barry Sonnenfeld, who backed out at the eleventh hour. And so for the second time in a row, they started directing a second-hand movie.

Typically of the Coens, they sought to overhaul the characteristics of the gang rather than stick to slavish adherence to the original cast, but few alterations could be classed as improvements.  There is a nagging sense that a lot of the actors had been cast before Sonnenfeld had left the stage.  Ethan Coen said at the time, ‘As we wrote it we didn’t do our usual thing of thinking of actors who might do specific parts.’  Specifically, where were the Coen stock company?  Watching Ryan Hurst gurning his way through the role of Lump Hudson, one couldn’t help thinking, where the hell is John Turturro, William H Macy, John Goodman or Steve Buscemi?  Why is Marlon Wayans in this?

Most damaging to the whole endeavour was the reimagining of the titular ‘Lady’ from a guileless, diminutive, octogenarian shrew, into a recalcitrant Southern Baptist with a will (and a right-hook) of iron.  Irma P. Hall’s Mrs Munson is an interesting creation, with her devotion to her late husband (touching) and her steadfast loyalty to the famously racist Bob Jones University (baffling).  Rather than a hapless, ancient law-abider, whose innate ‘grandmotherliness’ inadvertently twists Alec Guiness’ gang into paroxysms of guilt, self-preservation and murder, Mrs Munson is an indomitable opponent, and technically more physically threatening than any of the gang members.  As such, the third act, where the gang’s failed attempts to bump her off result in their own swift collective demise, feels like an empty retread of the 1955 version.

Tom Hanks The Ladykillers

Even a third rate Coen brothers film eclipses most directors’ first rate output and there is much buried treasure here.  There’s a welcome return to the Southern Gothic of O Brother, with regular composer Carter Burwell creating some great swampy, hellish themes, and Roger Deakins’ sun-baked photography coats everything with the sticky rays of an oven lamp.  Best of all is Tom Hanks’ extraordinarily amusing performance as Professor Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr, a ripe, serpentine cape-swish of a man and quite unlike any other role in Hanks’ career.

All told, The 2004 Ladykillers was a passable entertainment with some lovely touches.  Ultimately, there was an inescapable feeling that this was an ersatz Coen brothers film; that once again, this didn’t really belong to them and in truth, it didn’t.  Had the exact same film been credited to Barry Sonnenfeld, who would have known any different?  Two perfectly watchable, below-par capers down the line, the words ‘Spent force’ and ‘The Coen Brothers’ were finally being used in the same sentence.

‘You look older.’

‘I am older.’

(Barry Corbin and Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men)

The Coens have neither courted nor cared at all about the critical reaction to their work, so it’s hard to imagine a sombre creative meeting taking place where they accepted that they needed to step it up a gear.  What is beyond doubt is that from these twin disappointments (both Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers were box-office failures), sprang a vibrant new phase of artistic flowering, unmatched even in their own oeuvre.  They followed their worst film with arguably their best, No Country For Old Men (2007), which won them the Best Picture Oscar.  Three years later, with True Grit (the adaptation of the Charles Portis novel and not, or course, a remake of the John Wayne film) they enjoyed their biggest ever box office success.

The Coen Brothers

It would be unforgivably patronising to suggest that their brief paddle in the pool of comparative failure had forced the Coen brothers to reevaluate their priorities and intensify their efforts,  and yet there was definitely a mature, contemplative quality to this new set of Coen characters.  Even among the manic acrobatics and dildo-chairs of Burn After Reading, there was a group of people desperately searching for answers to big questions; in that case to no avail.  In A Serious Man (2009), no less a subject than God and His (seemingly malevolent) agenda, was up for scrutiny.

Viewed now within the narrative arc of the Coen brothers filmography, the ‘Great Lull’ of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers now makes some sort of poetic sense.  Only Joel and Ethan Coen could have made such a conclusion a plausibly deliberate possibility.

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