It's always been "The Coen Brothers" as a writing-directing team, although Joel is more often the guy calling the camera shots and both Ethan and he write the screenplays, and Ethan produces. The sensibilities that intertwine the two make the creative decisions that make or break these movies, so it's a little hard to be able to discern exactly who does what. The fact of the matter is, they both do (and Roderick Jaymes, their regular editor is actually a psuedonym for the two).
The Coens have always had an eye to bringing out the best of their material, be it original work or adaptation, with edgy actors who can produce drama and comedy equally well. They successfully tread from the independent film circuit to mainstream cinema in a very short period of time, and their work is of such an obviously high caliber that audiences connected with them not long after critics did, and not even that blind industry ogre, Oscar, could delay giving them top honors. Their acting company contains A-listers and up-and-coming character actors on their way to the A-list. Their biggest-budgeted film was also their biggest failure. And they have such a peculiar sensibility that confounds and even tweaks expectations that their most devoted fans have Coen movies that they can't explain or fathom...and sometimes simply disregard.
But each film is a complicated moebius strip of cruel fate and clueless human failings, reflecting and refracting the rich vein of material from both the cinematic and literary past. It may start as inspiration, but it becomes increasingly Coen to the final frame.
The Big Lebowski (1998) It's a little inside: an L.A. mystery story that recalls the imagery and style of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, but in the guise of "The Dude."* Through no fault of his own, the perpetually half-mast Dude (Jeff Bridges) is assaulted in his home, and his favorite rug urinated on, which ignites a long-dormant desire for justice and payback. That he gets pulled into a kidnapping plot by another Lebowski, a well-heeled California family, with a crippled father-figure and a collection of entitlement-addled kids, is just gravy to getting a rug out of the deal. Narrated by a laconic Sam Elliott in the first-person, and with frequent drug-and-movie-influenced fantasy sequences when The Dude is knocked unconscious (a Marlowe specialty!), The Big Lebowski is a brilliant flash-forward to the seamy side of The City of Angels that Chandler documented during the '40's and '50's. Another stellar cast (great work by John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Julianne Moore, David Huddleston, and an early turn by Philip Seymour Hoffman) headed by Bridges tells a great detective story that doesn't feel like a detective story, but works more like an indictment of society, which is Chandler to a finely-crafted metaphor, proving that not only does the Dude abide, but Chandler's neon-flashed mean streets do, as well.
Of all the Coen's films, this one seems to have struck the cultural nerve with the deepest roots. If you're making plans, this year's LebowskiFest ("A Celebration of All Things Lebowski") is in Tampa January 31st and February 1st. Here's the poster:
O Brother, Where Art Thou?* (2000) "You shall see a cow on top of a cotton bale, and many other startlements," intones a blind prophet to the three escaped inmates (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson). To say nothing of a blue-grass themed fantasia equal parts Homer, L. Frank Baum, and Depression-era musical. The startlements are a-plenty, including a Busby Berkley-inspired Ku Klux Klan rally, a phantasmagorical flash-flood on the prairie, as well as instant, anonymous fame. O Brother, Where Are Thou? is an odd, perfect blend of grit, dirt and fairy-dust, with a star-making turn that throws George Clooney directly into Clark Gable territory—although his fellow prison escapees Turturro and Nelson are just as good—along with great work by John Goodman (as a cyclopsian double-dealing travelling salesman), Holly Hunter, and Charles Durning. The soundtrack became a platinum seller producing a bluegrass mini-craze and the film, the Coen's most assured crowd-pleaser—although folks probably weren't exactly sure why.
The Man Who Wasn't There(2002) After their most successful film, the Coen's moved against type again with one almost no one saw. The Man Who Wasn't There is a luridly-titled, luridly plotted black and white contemplation on the type of pot-boiler James M. Cain would concoct but told absolutely straight. There are no hysterics in this movie (although hysterical things happen, including murders and suicides)—as a matter of fact, Billy Bob Thornton plays his barber Ed Crane without much emotion at all. Chain-smoking, narrating in a dull monotone, Ed decides he's going to invest in 1949's latest technological miracle—dry-cleaning. To get his investment stake, he surreptitiously blackmails the owner of Nerdlinger's department store (James Gandolfini), whom Ed knows is having an affair with his alcoholic wife (Frances McDormand). The ensuing "incredible mess" occurs, leading to complications that ensure both Ed and his wife being tried for murders neither one of them committed. The tone is different and the era is new, but one starts to feel the sameness of a Coen formula creeping in as far as plot while the stylistic window-dressing is changed. Still, Roger Deakins' cinematography (photographed in color, but printed in black and white) is luxurious to look at, and makes this entry stand out for that one element.
Intolerable Cruelty (2003) After the slight mustiness of The Man Who Wasn't There, this one is at least different. There are a lot of people who despise this movie enough to claim that the Coen's didn't really make it; they did, and it's one of their most conventional (and thereby unconventional) films. Crass, bawdy and cynical to the core, it still manages to be a love story set in the world of L.A. divorce lawyers. In this world of circling sharks, the Coens dare to bring up the word "trust."
Miles Massey (George Clooney, in an archly comic performance) is at the top of his game and beset by ennui. Legendary in his trade for the unbreakable, iron-clad "Massey Pre-nup," he has climbed the top of the pyramid only to find...nothing there. Dissatisfied with his mansion built on sand, he's looking for something to believe in—a challenge to his game, and he finds it in Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones, oozing danger), the soon-to-be-ex-wife of his current client. Opposing her in court, he becomes gob-smacked and follows her gold-digging career with a combination of fascination and hero-worship, only to watch her re-marry to Texas oilman Billy Bob Thornton, who, to display his unquestioning devotion eats his Pre-nup (with barbecue sauce) at the wedding reception. A lot of sharp dialogue delivered at a fast pace; imagine a Tracy-Hepburn movie with a really rancid sense of humor and you've got this movie. Excellent supporting work by Paul Adelstein, Richard Jenkins, and Julia Duffy. Favorite joke: the matrimonial attorney organization that holds its convention in Las Vegas is called N.O.M.A.N. and their slogan is "Let N.O.M.A.N. put asunder."
The Ladykillers (2004) Something of a misfire, this Americanized remake of a beloved 1955 Ealing Brothers comedy (starring Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, and Herbert Lom) was intended to be directed by the Coens' old cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who pulled out of the job. So, the Coens directed instead. The plot is basically the same: a gang of miscreants led by a dark Professor (Tom Hanks) rents a room from a clueless old woman (Irma P. Hall), as it is the perfect location to dig a tunnel to a vault where they can steal a fortune. In this case, it's a riverboat casino. Things go Incredibly Wrong (mostly due to the incompetence and internal bickering of the gang-members) and they soon wind up (each of them in turn) on a garbage scow heading down the river to be dumped. How the Coens arrange for everybody (and everything) to be deposited on that barge stretches credulity a bit, and as a final ironic knife twist, the woman, left with the money and no criminals to spend it, contributes the entire fortune to Bob Jones University
When things go wrong... Unfortunately, the same can be said of the film as well.
The Coens would rebound and spectacularly.
No Country for Old Men (2007) The one that won all the marbles: Oscars for Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem), Best Directors, and Best Picture. And yet No Country for Old Men was never a sure thing. Based, or should I say (as it's the fashion now), "slavishly adapted" from Cormac McCarthy's book, it seems like a perfect fit for the Coen's, who changed little, but meticulously cast it.
And, one should add, brought it to life—no small accomplishment.
One would think, looking back over their history, that No Country for Old Men could have been written just for them, as so many elements of their past films and the structure of it (not to mention the outlandishness of the deeds and the obliqueness of the dialog) are contained in it. However it happened—by devious planning or the serendipity of coincidence—story and directors appear to be made for each other.
Full review here: No Country for Old Men
Burn After Reading (2008) Another change-up pitch coming after their Oscar success, "Burn After Reading" is a satirical romp, mixing two groups of the hopelessly narcissistic: the self-improvement gym crowd, and "K" street intelligence workers. A mix of Coen regulars (Clooney, McDormand, J.K. Simmons and the nearly invisible Richard Jenkins given a prominent, heart-breaking role) with new blood (Brad Pitt—who's hilariously dumb,*** John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, and David Rasche), it's a "get-rich-quick-scheme" turned deadly when a bunch of rank amateurs think they can play the same game as the pro's. Meanwhile, the CIA monitors the situation, refusing to act until things get particularly ugly (wow, just like real life). It's the Coen's doing the spy genre, the way they do everything else, with a cheery dark humor and following the letter of Murphy's Law.
Full review here: Burn After Reading
A Serious Man (2009) Myth and reality mix it up in modern times, but which is it? Oh, don't ask why? Don't make it complicated. "Embrace the mystery."
But, do so at your own risk.
I thought this was the best movie of 2009 for what it said about life and the observation of it (who said "an unexamined life is not worth living?"), but also how it mixed myth, reality and perception (even as we watch the movie unfold in a theater) in a literate, apt way. Some critics just looked at the Coen's faith (or lack of it in practical terms) and judged it "anti-semitic." Schmucks. Here are better observations from some wildly disparate view-points:
Full review here: A Serious Man
True Grit (2010) Those familiar with the 1969 version starring John Wayne probably thought "why bother?" The answer to that is—to make it less a "John Wayne" movie, and more in keeping with Charles Portis' original novel. At the time the first was made, there was a "youth movement" going on and the movie very slightly pandered to that audience. The other is that Wayne is such a powerful screen presence, he blows everybody else right off the screen, good (Kim Darby) and bad (Glen Campbell, who still seemed to hold his own). The Coens went back to the original, cast someone (Hailee Stansfield) more the age of the novel's Mattie Ross, emphasized her spiritual spine, more than pluck, and included Portis' coda to show that the faith that sustained her through the struggle, also marked her for life to remain that stubborn fourteen year old, always.
Jeff Bridges made a fine irascible "Rooster" Cogburn, Matt Damon a nicely vain LaBoeuf, Josh Brolin a good, pathetic Tom Chaney, but Barry Pepper steps in late in the game to play a superb "Lucky" Ned Pepper. The Coens remain true to the book, making it less picturesque and more wintry and uncomfortable (and adding in a customary eccentric in a bear suit).
Full review here: True Grit (2010)
* "The Dude" is based on one of the publicists the Coens met when they were shopping "Blood Simple" around the film-festival circuit," Jeff Dowd. Dowd is one of those fixtures in the L.A. film community that you wonder how they make a living, and as such he's a modern counter-point to Chandler's Philip Marlowe who always seemed to be out of work, without portfolio, schedule or prospects.
** "O, Brother, Where Art Thou?" is the title of the film director John Sullivan wants to make in "Sullivan's Travels."
*** This was particularly on their minds during its construction, referring to the story as a "duelling idiots" movie. Reportedly, after shooting his last scene, Clooney remarked: "OK, I've played my last idiot!" ("I guess that's the last time he works for us," says Joel) When told they'd written his part specifically for him, Pitt mentioned he didn't know whether to be flattered or insulted, and added he wasn't sure how to play the part—"There was a pause and Joel said 'You'll be fine.'"