Inspired by Robâ€™s re-evaluation of the Coen brothersâ€™ latest (even if his original opinion remains largely intact) and various defenses of the film (check out the great comments thread in that post), Iâ€™ve been trying to understand my own relationship to the Coens. Because unlike a lot of critics, Iâ€™m not consistent. I think O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of the great comedies of the last fifteen years, and I was more than happy when No Country won Oscar earlier this year. I even remember liking Intolerable Cruelty, though I donâ€™t remember much about it besides Roger Deakinsâ€™s incredible cinematography and George Clooneyâ€™s white teeth. But Iâ€™m much less comfortable with their brand of humor in Burn after Reading, and even Fargo troubles me. So when Rob remarks about Burn, â€œIâ€™m not sure they ever strayed far,â€ I disagree and obviously think the film a serious step backwards. But why?
I think much of it has to do with mockery. The Coen brothers have enjoyed making fun of the dolts from the very beginning. Blood Simple might be a tight little noir, but it still relies for much of its humor on mocking the idiots. Ditto, Raising Arizona, of course. I re-watched Millerâ€™s Crossing last night, another fave of mine, and noticed how many of the secondary characters are just caricatures set up for the Coensâ€™ mocking camera. But why does it bother me in Burn and Fargo but not in O Brother and Millerâ€™s Crossing?
Much of it has to do with whatâ€™s being mocked. In Millerâ€™s Crossing, the jokes revolve around power and venality, how people strive for power or toady up to those who already have it. A great rhyming device occurs as the police chief changes sides between two mob bosses, and the Coens skewer him for it. Thereâ€™s also the obvious hypocrisy among those whoâ€™ve gained power. An early scene involves one mob boss screaming about the ethics of a fixed fight (special mention must be made of Jon Polito as the Italian mob boss--I had forgotten how great he is).
But in Fargo, too much of the humor revolves around making fun of people just because theyâ€™re pathetic. Iâ€™m thinking of the torturous scene in a restaurant when an Asian-American guy tries to profess his love to Frances McDormandâ€™s Marge Gunderson. The Coens stretch that scene out well beyond the breaking point just so we can laugh at the ridiculousness of the character and chuckle at his exaggerated Minnesota accent.
Of course, some critics found the same faults in O Brother, taking the filmmakers to task for their condescension towards Southerners. But there, the movie seems to be making fun of the stupid while at the same time embracing them for their humanity (the movieâ€™s beautifully affectionate use of music goes a long way with that). Yes, Everett, Pete, and Delmar arenâ€™t the brightest bulbs, and the audience enjoys giggling at their antics. But we root for them all the same. We laugh when they try to put on airs or when they fall prey to an obvious ruse, but we also want Everett to get back with his wife and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson as the dumbest of the dumb) to find his way. When Delmar gets baptized in an attempt to get right with the Lord, his conversation with the skeptical Everett (George Clooney in one of his finest performances) is priceless:
Delmar: The preacher said all my sins are warshed away, including that piggly-wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.
Everett: I thought you said you was innocent of those charges.
Delmar: [pause] Well, I was lying, and the preacher said that sinâ€™s been warshed away, too. Neither God nor manâ€™s got nothing on me now.
The Coens can make fun of Delmarâ€™s naivety and enthusiasm, but they do it in a way that doesnâ€™t strip him of his humanity.
Burn after Reading strikes me as fundamentally different. The characters in that movie seem to exist merely as stupidity personified. Idiots ready to take their place in the Coen brothersâ€™ shooting gallery. Ding! Each character gets shot down, quickly up again so he can be shot down in exactly the same way. Just like no one would confuse hitting the ducks on a boardwalk game with real hunting, I'm not sure this kind of humor takes any skill.
It hurts, too, that thereâ€™s no moral center to the film. Everyone is bad, everyone is clueless, everyone is selfish. Even Ted, who might be the only halfway decent person in the movie, is hardly worthy of our admiration. Itâ€™s as if the Coens have embraced Homer Simpsonâ€™s dictum: â€œEveryoneâ€™s stupid but me.â€
And this unfortunately fits into our cultureâ€™s larger problem with mockery, where everything seems to exist merely as a foil for our cynical humor. Anyone who takes anything seriously is fodder for the stand-up comic, anything that smacks of intelligence needs to be taken down a notch. I taught a class for high school students this summer, and I was trying to illustrate film style by showing them a couple scenes from Citizen Kane. Bad choice on my part, because the kids couldnâ€™t get past a Family Guy episode where Peter mocks anyone whoâ€™d want to take the time to watch Kane. Admittedly, those are teenagers, but Iâ€™ve noticed the same attitude in my older college students. They arrogantly assume that every handout I give them that includes words they donâ€™t understand is evidence of a writer whoâ€™s putting on airs and, therefore, not worthy of their time.
Now some critics can embrace that dark vision of the world, but I think movies like Burn after Reading are part of the problem, that they encourage people to sit back in their chairs and laugh at everyone else. That they flatter people of their own superiority. That they let us off the hook for our own moral failings because at least weâ€™re not like those idiots.