Coen Brothers Films: A Subjective Look
By Danielle Herman.
What qualifies as the “best” and “worst” films from possibly the two most unwavering, inventive, entertaining and provocative filmmakers of modern times? After a couple of White Russians, we attempted to rank the Coens’ crop of offerings in a highly subjective effort to get to the core of that Barton Fink fiendishness.
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
After a remarkable streak of Coen successes, this dull tale of an emotionless drone (Billy Bob Thornton) was the first and worst of the brothers’ fin de siècle slump, ushering in a frightening period when it seemed the Coens had finally exhausted their bag of tricks. Neither funny nor particularly dramatic (despite the numerous murders that drive the plot), The Man Who Wasn’t There even managed to make an oral-sex scene involving Scarlett Johansson seem dull and unnecessary — a remarkably dubious accomplishment.
Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
In the perverse ways of Hollywood, the second worst film of the brothers’ career was also their first to surpass $100 million at the box office, thanks to the star power of George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones as the duelling spouses in this run-of-the-mill divorce comedy. The directors were collaborating with a pair of screenwriters who would later pen the movie in which Tommy Lee Jones protects a houseful of cheerleaders. The Coens’ distinctive aesthetic was barely evident in this hunk of multiplex fodder. Still, what counts as a misfire in the Coen filmography would qualify as a career highpoint had it been directed by, say, Garry Marshall.
The Ladykillers (2004)
And then, three years into the brothers’ “slump,” this reimagining of the classic 1950s heist film suggested that maybe the Coens were finally getting their mojo back. Uneven and sluggish, The Ladykillers nevertheless gave the contractually bland Tom Hanks free reign to let his freak flag fly, resulting in the most interesting (and underrated) performance of the actor’s career as would-be criminal mastermind Professor Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr.