“In the Parlance of Our Times”:
An Insufficient Appreciation of the Coen Brothers

Burn After Reading, the latest caper comedy by Joel and Ethan Coen, stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, and Tilda Swinton. It’s in theaters everywhere, giving the Coens their first #1 box office hit ever.

Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading

It’s been a long time coming. The Coens have been critics’ darlings since their arrival on the scene with the low-budget thriller Blood Simple. And every time a new Coen feature opens, critics use it as an excuse to revisit one of their favorite debates: Which Coen brothers’ film qualifies as their “masterpiece”? And which represents their biggest misstep?

Critics are almost unanimous on the misstep – the crass, misguided, uneven remake of The Ladykillers. But when it comes to celebrating what the Coens do best, it’s hard to find two fans who agree.

Film critic Michael Sicinski, whose work has appeared in Cineaste and Cinema Scope, has rated Burn After Reading with a capital “M” for masterpiece. But he’s taking a lonely stand there. Many have criticized the Coens for resting on their laurels, doing what they’ve done before, and getting lazy with a bunch of big-name celebs.

But then again, many of the Coen brothers’ legendary films were not appreciated when they first opened. The Big Lebowski has become a cult favorite over time, as memorable phrases have worked their way into “the parlance of our times” (a phrase that was itself popularized by that film).

It’s a matter of personality and taste, clearly. The Coens have a unique style-they’ve never made anything that qualifies as a drama, as their characters have exaggerated personalities, quirks, dialects, and mannerisms that suggest they can’t even take a violent gangster movie seriously. But then again . . . comedy? The audience laughs in discomfort, if they laugh at all, at the accidents, executions, and spectacular, grisly murders that often occur in the films’ final moments. Some of the duo’s films lean into the territory of Looney Toons (Raising Arizona, Intolerable Cruelty), while others demand that the audience think things through, discussing themes, aesthetics, and character development (Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn’t There).

But I propose that there are four consistent qualities of the Coen brothers’ films:

  1. They draw award-caliber performances from great actors. Even Ladykillers boasted a remarkably offbeat turn by Tom Hanks.
  2. They only work with standards-setting cinematographers, and as a result, even their most frivolous comedies are a pleasure to watch.
  3. They demonstrate a good-humored affection for distinct regional characteristics (accents, fashion), which they celebrate through exaggeration – a tactic that some critics mistake for scorn and contempt.
  4. And for all of their outrageous plot twists and stylistic bravado, they are absolutely serious, spiritual tales about human depravity and the corrupting nature of power. In fact, their stories fulfill the definition of “parable” as offered by the theologian C.H. Dodd: “… a metaphor or simile, drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearers by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt to its precise application, to tease the mind into active thought. Whether their characters are after a baby, a suitcase full of cash, a living room rug of particular personal significance, or a paycheck, the Coens always build their stories around some wanted article, and then show just what foolishness people will commit out of greed and desire.

In order to fully appreciate Burn After Reading, and how it carries on this Coen tradition, let’s consider three of their previous works.

John Turturro in Barton Fink

Barton Fink
The Coen brothers won fame and enthusiastic fans with their low-budget debut, Blood Simple, and their comedy breakthrough Raising Arizona (which remains the funniest thing that Nicolas Cage ever did, or Holly Hunter, for that matter). But they staked their claim internationally with Barton Fink, which brought home the Palme D’Or from Cannes.

Barton Fink is, in some ways, the darkest and most troubling of the Coens’ films. Viewers accustomed to their more commercial comedies may be surprised to find that this story about a passionate playwright, who writes to serve “the common man,” is actually a horror movie about what really goes on in “the life of the mind.” It’s a courageous and horrific glimpse through the ego and courage of the human spirit into the frailties, the sins, the emptiness of even the kindest human being’s heart.

John Turturro, in his finest comic turn, delivers a nervous, hysterical performance as Fink, a playwright sensation who is brought to Hollywood to write for “the pictures.” His drive to create a “new theater for the common man” is stifled when he is assigned his first script – a formula B-movie wrestling picture. His frustration with writer’s block is only agitated by the visits of a noisy, overfriendly neighbor (John Goodman) who seems to be a “common man” with needs of his own.

Is Barton really interested in understanding the common man? Or is he really only interested in writing about his own pain and delusions? Is there any such thing as “art for the common man”, or are artists just tooting their own maddening horns?

Everybody and everything in this film is rotten underneath, from heads with ear infections to wallpaper that’s sagging as its sticky glue melts in the heat. A famous writer, Barton’s hero, comes into the picture, and Barton becomes increasingly disillusioned with his own idealized vision of humanity.

A mysterious box wrapped in brown paper appears, and a sense of dread builds as we wonder what’s in the box; yet, whatever the box contains, it comes to symbolize the mystery of each character, of each isolated world in the film. We are all mysteries to each other, and the deeper we dig in our relationships, the more nightmares we will unearth. The only character who dares to show compassion suffers terrible consequences, and remains nevertheless a shining symbol of grace in a world of monsters.

Barton Fink is about the risks involved in looking inside the “box,” listening to our hearts and the hearts of our fellow human beings, and dealing with the pain and the yucky stuff inside. You’ll need to see it more than once to appreciate all it has to offer. See it if only to see just how great an actor John Goodman really is; his work on TV’s “Roseanne” only scratched the surface of this marvelous actor’s abilities.

By comparison, Burn After Reading is full of memorable performances, but it doesn’t demand nearly so much of the audience as Barton Fink. It’s a caper that assumes the depravity of human nature from the opening scenes, and there are few new insights along the way, whereas people will be discussing Barton for decades to come.

Frances McDormand in Fargo

You’ve probably seen the Coens’ famous Minnesota comedy, which won Frances McDormand an Oscar for her memorably endearing turn as the pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson. But it may be time to revisit the film again. What lingers in the memory is, alas, the Woodchipper Scene. But when you’ve seen it more than once, the film’s closing moments may outshine those scenes that were initially shocking.

Fargo is dark comedy against a snow-white landscape, with a whole mess of bright blood on the snow. It’s one of the bloodiest of the brothers’ films – murder is a messy business, and it takes a long time to clean it up – but it also stands with Raising Arizona (my own personal favorite) as uncharacteristically hopeful.

What sets Fargo apart from the others is that it is the first Coen movie with a hero that is basically a good person. Sheriff Margie starts out with an overturned car and a dead body, but soon she’s chasing a runaway car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), who has made dangerous bargains with deadly men in order to get “a little bit of money.” He wants that money so badly, he’ll have his wife kidnapped by two complete idiots so that her rich father will put up the ransom money. Sure enough, crime doesn’t pay.

That’s about as profound a moral as you’ll get from Fargo, but what makes it special is its characterization and its screenplay. The Coens are unique among American filmmakers in their absolute refusal to cast criminals in an admiring light. The crooks in the their storybook have no sense of cool, no mysterious charm. They’re buffoons and lunkheads. And you almost feel sorry for these laughable jerks as they spiral slowly to inevitable capture.

The ending is bittersweet, a trademark of the Coens, who know that good versus evil is a real battle, but it is never simple. Nevertheless, that last image of Margie and Norm, smiling with their minds set on the future, is as optimistic and heart-warming as anything they’ve given us.

Burn After Reading has its strengths, but it doesn’t have any characters to compare to Margie or Jerry. And it offers a decidedly more pessimistic view of human nature, and where this country is going.

Jeff Bridges, Steve Buscemi,
and John Goodman in The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski
Lebowski may be the most unclassifiable and indescribable of the Coens’ films.

But it lives up to the “four rules” of the Coens films-especially in the way it brings out the very best in Jeff Bridges.

Bridges is “The Dude,” an affable unemployed Neanderthal that survived the 60’s, so full of pot smoke he can hardly comprehend what’s happening. We stagger and reel right along with him as he is mistaken for a different Lebowski – “the millionaire Lebowski” – and gets caught up in a kidnapping caper, bouncing between ransacked apartments, parking lots, psycho-nihilists, pornographers’ lounges, bowling alleys, taxi cabs, limousines, and fights with nihilists.

And the movie mirrors its main character. Although enjoyable, The Big Lebowski stumbles in so many directions that its meandering nature is off-putting to many viewers. But the Dude, like the stolen carpet he pursues throughout the picture, is the simple center that somehow “ties the whole room together.” He’s such a lovable oaf.

And the highlights are grand and worth waiting for, especially the Dude’s show-stopping drug-induced musical hallucinations.

Lewbowski covers so much ground so quickly, we only catch glimpses of a world of interesting characters – Jon Goodman: the Vietman vet who pulls his gun at the slightest provocation. Sam Elliot: the cowboy storyteller, accentuating that this is a tall tale. Julianne Moore: a bizarre experimentalist in erotic art. Steve Buscemi: the bowling partner who can’t get a word in edgewise. And best of all, John Turturro in a performance that redefines “over-the-top”: a Hispanic bowling champion and child-molester named Jesus (pronounced like the savior).

And then there’s the Big Lebowski himself. The Coens love the Man Behind the Desk. In Raising Arizona, they had Nathan Arizona. Miller’s Crossing had Albert Finney as Leo, the Irish Godfather of Crime. In Barton Fink, it was the president of Capitol Pictures. In The Hudsucker Proxy, Charles Durning swelled to fill the role of Waring Hudsucker. All of these characters have made lasting impressions of power-abusing control freaks, arrogant jerks, and megaphone big-talkers. The millionaire Lebowski is rich, old, and offensively prideful. Unfortunately, he’s also a bland character. They would have been wise to bring back Charles Durning or Michael Lerner, actors that make that famous Coen dialogue sing.

The Big Lebowski is an exercise in over-the top, a rollercoaster ride of sensory overload. At times it seems like a collage of scenes left over from their previous films. It’s the most flamboyant, erratic, spontaneous movie they’ve made.

Joel and Ethan Coen

In Conclusion
While it proved a head-scratcher for many critics upon its arrival, Lebowski‘s characterizations and turns of phrase slowly elevated the film to cult-status. Similarly, Burn After Reading is not inspiring anything like the enthusiastic reception that met the Coens’ Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men. Its significance may be appreciated more fully in time, but I suspect that it will rate lower on most critics’ lists of Coen favorites. It has no character as endearing as The Dude. It lacks the memorable chemistry of Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona, and John Turturro and John Goodman in Barton Fink. There’s nothing memorable about the soundtrack, whereas songs from O Brother Where Art Thou and the musical flourishes of The Hudsucker Proxy are still ringing in my ears. Burn After Reading just lacks that element that will “tie the whole room together.”

Still, Burn After Reading does offer plenty of memorably madcap moments, and some of America’s finest actors at their comedic best. And like all of their movies, it reminds us of just how much can go wrong when people turn greedy and, failing to truly assess “the quality of their intelligence,” they set terrible events in motion.

It proves that the Coens are still dreaming up rich comic scenarios that enable talented actors to play in ways they would never get a chance to play otherwise. They have a rare combination of talents that leave a particularly admirable impression at the end of every film-the impression that their best work may yet still be ahead of them.

The Curator is an assemblage of original and found essays, poetry, reviews, quotations, image galleries, video, and other media in a continuing commitment to wrestle with all that is in culture, and to look toward all that ought to be in hope.