The Coen Brothers’ Fargo is special to me, for two reasons: For one thing, it was the first time I went out to the cinema with the woman who ended up sharing my life and my DVDs. (Yes, the ideal date movie contains scenes of people being put through wood chippers. No wonder we only got together nine years later…) The second reason is somewhat less romantic, or weird and worrying, depending on what your ideal date movie is: Fargo was my first Coen Brothers movie. Afterwards, I worked my way through Blood Simple (perhaps the Coens’ darkest film, in more than one way), The Big Lebowski (which I thought somewhat amusing at first but have come to love), Barton Fink (the greatest David Lynch movie that Lynch never made, and proof that the face of evil is Dan Tanner’s face) and so on.
I’ve never seen Raising Arizona, and after Intolerable Cruelty I decided to give The Ladykillers a miss. Intolerable Cruelty had roughly two good scenes, namely one of the funniest, most unexpected deaths in recent movie history (an honour it shares with another George Clooney film, Out of Sight), and Clooney’s speech on the power of love at the divorce attorneys’ convention, followed by the obligatory ‘slow clap’ (which I read as ‘snow clap’ when Roger Ebert first mentioned it, and it made perfect sense to me). The last Coen Brothers film I liked was The Man Who Wasn’t There.
So what was wrong with Intolerable Cruelty? I think it’s mainly this: the Coens populate their cinematic landscape with characters that are essentially postmodern cartoons. There’s no such thing as a naturalistic Coen character. Even the more sedate protagonists – Marge Gunderson, Doris and Ed Crane – are caricatures. Their character features are exaggerated for comic effect. However, and this is what distinguishes a good Coen film from a bad one, at least in my opinion, these protagonists are deeply human caricatures. Jerry Lundegard (perhaps my favourite performance in a Coen movie, and my favourite performance by William H. Macy) is both as much of a cartoon as Wyle E. Coyote and hilariously, tragically human. He is observed with a subtlety that requires repeat viewings to fully appreciate. Consider the scene where he comes home to find that his wife has been kidnapped (as planned by him), and he practices what to say to his father-in-law, trying to get the words and intonation just right, and then is flummoxed when he dials Wade’s number and is immediately put on hold. Or his growing frustration when Marge Gunderson interviews him a second time.
Even in one of their most cartoonish films, The Big Lebowski, there’s something deeply human about the characters, so that when Donnie dies of a heart attack, it’s funny, but it’s also moving. You accept the Dude and Walter as cartoons, yet at the same time they’re real. And that’s how I tell a good Coen Brothers movie from a bad one – when they manage to maintain that tension. But enough of this Monday morning pretentiousness; I want to leave you with what may be my favourite scene from The Big Lebowski.
P.S.: I hope you noticed how neatly I segued from my last blog entry, which I called a mere filler, to today’s topic. That’s planning for you – almost like Lost. They’re not making things up as they go along either! (Nor do they kill of characters if the actor has a run-in with the police for one reason or another. It’s all planned!)