Total Recall: The Best-Reviewed Coen Brothers Films
Where does the Certified Fresh A Serious Man rank?
For more than two decades now, Joel and Ethan Coen have been thrilling critics -- and, here and there, audiences -- with their distinctive blend of dark humor, colorful violence, and singular visual flair. Not all of the Coens' films have been critical darlings (alas, poor Ladykillers), but with lifetime Tomatometers above 80 percent, the brothers are easily two (or is that one?) of the most respected directors in the business. Their latest effort, A Serious Man, is another winner, currently Certified Fresh at 87 percent on the Tomatometer, and to celebrate, we've freshened up our previous look at their filmography, Total Recall style!
After the resolute darkness of No Country for Old Men, the Coens made a 180-degree turn -- of sorts -- and plunged into cockeyed, misanthropic comedy for 2008's Burn After Reading. Brad Pitt sets the film's (rather convoluted) plot in motion as Chad Feldheimer, a buffoonish personal trainer who stumbles across the memoirs of a disgraced CIA agent (John Malkovich) and, mistakenly believing them to be classified material, tries to earn a payday by selling them to the highest bidder. Populated with self-centered dimbulbs, dripping with black humor, and punctuated with death, Reading failed to entertain some critics (Michael Dance of the Cinema Source described it as "unlikable characters who do stupid things"), but the majority agreed with Karina Montgomery of Cinerina, who applauded, "It's like a spy thriller, but with no spies and no thrills."
Though many of the Coens' films can be labeled cult classics, perhaps none embody the term more than The Big Lebowski. Jeff Bridges stars as pot-smoking slacker hero Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski, who seeks restitution for his rug, urinated on by a pair of gangsters who mistook him for a different Lebowski -- namely, the "big" one (played by Charles Durning). Along with his bowling buddies, The Dude embarks on a wild chase that's as funny, depraved, and plain unpredictable as Los Angeles always feels like it should be. Not all critics were willing to join The Dude's steadily growing cult -- Todd McCarthy of Variety sniffed that the movie "Adds up to considerably less than the sum of its often scintillating parts" -- but in the end, as Chuck O'Leary of FulvueDrive-in.com wrote, "It's pretty much impossible not to love The Dude."
Though the brothers have flirted with the shadowy realms of film noir, The Man Who Wasn't There is the closest they've yet come to making a headlong plunge into the genre. Billy Bob Thornton stars as a classic fall guy, and playing the character as a deeply emotionally repressed square, Thornton is at his most controlled, wringing pathos out of an increasingly dire scenario. Featuring sharp, evocative black and white cinematography and an excellent supporting cast, The Man Who Wasn't There is an existential nightmare replete with odd touches; it's arguably the brothers' most emotionally pained work. "Once again," wrote Judith Egerton of Louisville's Courier-Journal, "Ethan and Joel Coen have twisted a film genre into something new."
After branching out into broad espionage comedy with Burn After Reading, the Coens went back to their roots for A Serious Man -- quite literally, in fact: It takes place in an ordinary Jewish home in the suburban Midwest of the late 1960s, leading many critics to proclaim Serious the brothers' most personal film to date. Still, these are the Coens we're talking about -- A Serious Man might be based loosely on their own childhoods, but the Job-like struggles faced by the movie's central character, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) are classic indignities to which any of Joel and Ethan's unfortunate protagonists could relate. In the words of Brian Orndorf, it's "a classic black comic strangling by the Coens, who leave no domestic discomfort behind. In fact, all this film contains is unease, making it a perfect itchy sweater film for those who enjoy their cinema on the suffocating side."
The first Coen brothers film to display their knack for quirky comedy, Raising Arizona helped seal the filmmakers' reputation and cement their loyal following. Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter are brilliantly cast as a cop and ex-con husband/wife who resolve their infertility with kidnapping. Though not their biggest hit, it's infinitely quotable ("Edwina's insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase"), and the original score by Carter Burwell is not to be ignored. As the New Times' Luke Y. Thompson ruefully sighed, "Nic Cage may never be better."