The Complete Collections: The Coen Brothers (Part 3)

Other than financial concerns, every film the Coen’s had made got pretty-much positive criticism. Miller’s Crossing and The Hudsucker Proxy had its interesting concepts, but ultimately failed at the box-office. Whatever the case, producers knew, with the right restraints (not too mcuh money…) the Coen’s had an established audience and all they needed was a certain amount of freedom to continue to enlarge the audience they were building…

O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000)
George Clooney joining John Turturro, John Goodman, Holly Hunter (previously in Raising Arizona) and many others in a new Coen’s movie. This time it is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, but in the Coen’s unique style. Clooney, Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson are three convicts who escape from prison to look for money that Clooney’s character is positive awaits them. It will be split amongst the three. Set in Mississippi in the 1930’s, we know we are in familiar territory. The Hudsucker Proxy dealt with the era surrounding The Great Depression from the perspective of New York, while this film is set in deserts and grassy plains from inner-America. Lets just recap and see where we have ended up so far with the Coen’s. Having previously mentioned Hudsucker based in New York on the east coast, Blood Simple based in the deep South of Texas, Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski are set in west-coast LA, Fargo is set between Minnesota and North
Dakota, right up the north of America, whist O Brother is set in Minnesota, two states away from Texas. As if the Coen’s are exploring every small aspect of each state of America –  Carter Burwell’s music has always been important but, here, Burwell was not attached – with T-Bone Burnett choosing the appropriate music driving the story forward. To the point that it became more successful than the fil itself! Bluegrass and old-time themed soundtrack alonsgide American folk music spawning a concert and additional soundtracks to go alongside the films official soundtrack. The yodelling of Rasing Arizona and country-buzz of Lebowski was nothing in comparison to this epic soundtrack reviving a style of music full of passion and energy.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

My personal favourite Coen’s movie, The Man Who Wasn’t There was based in 1940’s California (another destination, a different decade…) filmed in black-and-white, this was the film-noir thriller the Coen’s had been attemping to make since the gangster-about gangsters movie Miller’s Crossing and, to some extent, the hints of noir in Blood Simple. Actors returning to the Coen’s production were Tony Shalhoub (briefly in Barton Fink), Michael Badalucco (from O Brother…) and Frances McDormand, but again, we get actors who appear in future Coen movies – namely Richard Jenkins and Billy Bob Thornton.

Inspired by a poster of 40’s haircuts the Coen’s saw when making The Hudsucker Proxy, this film has all the Coen cliches – murder, infidelity and strange, quirky characters (Johansson’s apathetic Birdy, Big Dave’s Alien-obsessed wife). Even the ending has surrealist slant as Billy Bob’s quiet barber witnesses UFO’s in the night sky. Billy Bob Thornton’s ‘Ed Crane’ has many attributes the Coen’s leading men have – not knowing a Beethoven places him in that middle-of-the-road character position akin to Barton Fink, not stupid but not incredibly clever – but this time he is quiet and sincere, making it all the more shocking when we find that Crane is on death row, narrating the film shortly pre-death by electricution. He regrets nothing – but wishes he hadn’t hurt others. The manufacturing-age is briefly alluded to also – akin to the Soggy Bottom Boys record in O Brother and the hula-hoop in Hudsucker – Crane invests into the crazy idea that is dry-cleaning.

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
Clooney had tghe charm that could only be linked to Cary Grant and Clark Gable – so, now on the second attempt, the Coen’s try for their screwball-comedy. The Hudsucker Proxy failed, potentially through its imitation in the original 40’s context – so maybe simply updating the story to suit a more modern situation – divorce – would be the keen. Clooney, Miles Massey, is the best divorce lawyer – fast-talking, obsessed with image – checking his teeth and hair regularly – who falls for gold-digger Catherine Zeta Jones, a woman who seeks out rich-men only to divorce them, gaining half their wealth, thus gaining her ‘independence’. Infidelity at the forefront of the story – and with an awful rom-com advertising campaign – it surely would gain the wrong audience. With a $60m budget (how much did Zeta-Jones and Clooney get from that?), the film has made, since 2003, £120m worldwide. Clearly not a bad pairing. Carter Burwell had a strong use of Simon and Garfunkel on the soundtrack and, alongside Burwell, we also had Richard Jenkins back on board alongside Billy Bob Thornton playing a role that shows his range as it is the complete oppostie to Ed Crane – Billy Bob cannot stop talking and is completely made of money playing Zeta-Jones second husband … so we think …

Personally, I thought the film was one of the weakest Coen films to date. Not as funny as it thinks it is, with Catherine Zeta-Jones completely miscast as a red-dress man eater. She is simply so boring – where is the the Claudette-Colbert alongside Clooney’s-Gable? The film descends into chaos as we know what will play out and simply sit and wait to see it happen – some clever twists and turns – but ultimately, unsatisfying. Even the quirky character in the hired-killer isn’t that funny and the affluent LA world is nothing in comparison to the moody Santa Rose of The Man Who Wasn’t There – it looks cheap and distasteful, akin to the divorce-money-making business that Zeta-Jones and Clooney live off. So, time for the Coen’s to go back to something that worked well before …

The Ladykillers (2004)

The Coen’s often write their own films – and whenever they adapt them from other sources (O Brother, Where Art Thou, based on the Odyssey and even The Big Lebowski has strong ties to The Big Sleep) they change them enough to make them their own. The Ladykillers, based on the Ealing Studios classic from 1955, was no different. Or was completely different to the original but no-different in how the Coen’s adapt others material. The original based in London involving an old woman in Kings Cross could not be more different than Mrs Munson (Irma P. Hall), the widow living in the archaic-town of Saucier, Missisippi (the same state for O Brother, Where Art Thou, but sixty years later…). Tom Hanks was pulled on board to lead the cast – the top of the A of A-list actors. The film recieved luke-warm reviews, apparently remaking a classic does not give the Coen’s enough leeway for their own creativity. Personally, murder and quirky characters set within a small local-town with all of its mannerisms is completely the Coen’s style – think Fargo – and this was not lost on everybody, as they managed to gain the Cannes Jury prize of 2004.

T-Bone Burnet who provided the maginificent music for O Brother.. worked alongside Carter Burwell to, once again, provide an incredible mix of African-American Gospel Music and Hip-Hop. It rooted the film in an ambiguous world that blurred the boundaries betweent he old-school attitude of Mrs Munson and contemporary attitude of Marlon Wayan’s Gawain Macsam. Vastly underrated, this film shows how great Hanks can be and how consistent the Coens can be – even when adapting material.

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