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The Muse: A Coen Comedy for Every Occasion

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The Muse is a creative publication that aims to share the interests, talents, and research of students on campus. The following represents the opinion of the student writer and does not represent the views of Loyola University Maryland, the Greyhound, or Loyola University’s Department of Communication.

Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, snow, snow, snow; as this is the Holiday issue with the holidays fast approaching, I was racking my brain trying to come up with a Christmas movie to talk about. That’s when it hit me—long story short, I’m currently wrapping up a semester abroad in Santiago, Chile. It’s been great, but the reason I bring it up is that since we’re working with the southern hemisphere, there are no December snowflakes or hot chocolate trips. In fact, quite the opposite: today it was 85 degrees outside!  Christmas isn’t all sledding and mittens. In fact, the holiday season is called the holiday season, as I’m sure you all know, because not everyone in the world celebrates Christmas. So, what kind of holiday spirit-filled movie reviewer would I be if I didn’t remember that this season isn’t all about the cold, or Christmas cookies, as Carrie Fisher (RIP) once famously said, “It’s about family.”  So, in honor of this wonderful time that we all get to spend home from school or work with our friends and family,  I have selected three fantastically funny and entertaining Coen Brothers’ films that I recommend all of you watch over the holidays. 

Joel and Ethan Coen are an American writer-director sibling team who burst onto the scene in 1984 with the gripping crime-thriller “Blood Simple”, which is a great movie that I definitely recommend.  They would then go on to make quality movie after quality movie all the way up until the present day with their two most famous films being 2007’s “No Country for Old Men,” and 1996’s “Fargo.”  Both of these movies, like “Blood Simple,” are intense, violent, crime dramas.  I enjoy those films, and if you’re reading this article, you’ve probably seen those movies and you already know that they’re great.  That’s where I come in, because sure, those movies are awesome, but the Coen Brothers’ strengths truly lie in crafting some of the best comedy movies out there.  We’re going to get into my three favorites: 2000’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” 1987’s “Raising Arizona” and 1998’s “The Big Lebowski.”  Keeping with my family theme, I’ve already planned out who I’m watching each of these movies with, and we’re going to break down why there’s a perfect Coen Brothers’ comedy for every situation. Hopefully, this article inspires you to give these movies a shot if you haven’t already, so without any further ado, let’s begin!

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

This is definitely a “watch with your grandparents” movie. Released in 2000, it stars George Clooney as Ulysses, John Turturro as Pete, and Tim Blake Nelson as Delmar. These three escaped jailbirds embark on an odyssey through 1930s Mississippi in search of a hidden treasure.  Along their comedic journey, they encounter various outlandish characters all while trying to evade the Sheriff, played by Daniel von Bargen, and his hound. A quick look at the crew of this film and you’ll realize “O Brother” is the only one of the three movies that has 3 writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, and Homer.  Yeah, that’s right, when I said “Odyssey”, I wasn’t messing around.  Imagine a Greek epic set in the deep South during the Great Depression, but it’s also a comedy.  Surely that sentence alone should have convinced you to give it a shot, but if for some reason you need some more convincing, I’m going to run through some highlights with no spoilers.

The cast here is fantastic, I’m talking prime George Clooney, a few years after his big screen debut in 1996’s Owen Classic “From Dusk Till Dawn,” and only a year before “Ocean’s Eleven.”  In many ways, this film was his big introduction to the American moviegoing public, and this is George Clooney in his charismatic PRIME.  John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson are also great here-they come off as incredibly likable, if not incredibly intelligent guys, but their hearts are in the right spot. Sure, the leads are great, but there are plenty of other comedy movies with strong leads. But what separates a Coen Brothers’ comedy is the side characters. If there’s one thing that these three movies have in common, it’s the outstanding comedic writing and performances given to the smaller roles. The best way I can describe it is that the characters with small parts in a Coen Brothers’ movie don’t know that their parts are small; every character in these three movies might as well be the main character with how memorable they are. The Coen’s are clearly aware of this special connection that they have with certain performers leading to some serious overlap. If you watch all three of these movies, you’ll definitely notice some of the same actors appearing in multiple or even all three movies, which to me is just part of the fun.

As great as the concept and performances are, the best part of “O Brother ” has got to be the music.  This movie’s soundtrack won a Grammy; not that I’m a huge fan of the Academy or anything, but that should let you know we’re not dealing with an ordinary soundtrack.  From start to finish, “O Brother” hits you with these astronomically soulful bluegrass and gospel tracks accurate to the time period that just blew me away.  Not to get into spoilers but at one point in the film, our loveable outlaws join up with Tommy Johnson, THE Tommy Johnson, and make an impromptu band.  Then they just go out and perform my favorite song that’s ever been in a movie. I’m not kidding, this film has my favorite song to ever appear in a movie; for that reason alone it’s worth a shot. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” really goes the extra mile to make the most of its fantastic premise, with a killer soundtrack, great performances, and a genuine heart at the center of it all. You’re going to love it, and I’m willing to bet your grandparents will too.

 

Raising Arizona 

Next up on our friends and family holiday Coen comedy movie tour is the perfect movie to watch with your parents, Joel and Ethan Coens’ 1987 charming classic, “Raising Arizona.”  This is the Coens’ second film, and it stars a young Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter as H.I. McDonnough (or just HI) and Edwina (just Ed) respectively. HI is what you might call a repeat offender, a criminal who robs convenience stores with an empty gun almost pathologically.  Ed is a police officer who HI sees every time he gets arrested.  Through a fantastic intro sequence narrated by Nic Cage, we see their relationship grow into love, and eventually HI is inspired to leave the criminal life behind and start a family with Ed. This intro sequence is full of that classic Coen Brother’s outlandish comedy; and so is the rest of the film. Things start off great for our two young lovers, but problems arise when they wish to have a child, only to find out that due to Ed’s infertility and HI’s criminal record, they can’t complete their new family.  That’s when while watching TV, they stumble upon a crazy idea. Local unpainted furniture mogul Nathan Arizona recently had quintuplets with his wife. Reasoning that the Arizonas have more children than they can handle and that it’s unfair that some have so many while they can’t have any, Ed and HI hatch a plan to burgle a child from the Arizonas to take as their own.  Hilarity ensues as the child (probably Nathan Jr.) gets a bounty put on him for his return and so becomes the center of plots, failed rescues, and more kidnappings, all while Ed and HI battle to save their new family even as they start to realize that they might have made a mistake. 

“Raising Arizona”’s charm comes from the genuine heart at the center of a silly, cartoonish movie.  In many ways, “Raising Arizona” is straight out of a cartoon with unforgettable sequences like the baby-napping scene, bank robbery, and of course, the great failed convenience store robbery chase. Out of all three movies, “Raising Arizona” is by far the most energetic. The camera in this film is incredibly dynamic, constantly moving, matching the frantic pace of the script. Joel Coen got his start in the filmmaking business working with Sam Raimi of the Tobey McGuire Spiderman trilogy fame, on the original low-budget cult horror flick “The Evil Dead” in 1981.  It’s clear that the Coens learned a thing or two from Raimi and the camerawork here excellently matches the cartoonish tone of the film, at times seemingly moving with a mind of its own.  A note on the cast, much like every movie on this list, the supporting cast around the film’s leads are excellent, each getting their own moment to shine.  I want to specifically shout out John Goodman who plays Gale.  I will talk about him more in the section on “The Big Lebowski,” but he’s in all three movies, and the bank scene in this movie will never not crack me up. 

“Raising Arizona” shouldn’t work as well as it does. It’s a movie trying to be so many things at once–outlandish, funny, cartoony–yet it’s also sincerely telling a story about family and what it means to raise a child. It’s a tightrope act the Coen Brothers execute to perfection culminating in a movie chalk full of great scenes, great performances, and great dialogue with a big ole heart right at the center.  I’ve touched on a bunch of scenes and sequences from this movie because they are so unique and instantly memorable, but I truly believe the best scene is the last one. As when all is said and done, and all the craziness has subsided, HI dreams of a beautiful future where anything is possible. This note of optimism that burns through the whole movie keeps the fun levity even when things look dark, serving as a true beacon of hope in what can be a pretty bleak and sad world. I love “Raising Arizona” and I truly believe it deserves a spot among the family movie greats. I have a feeling that you’ll agree with me.

 

The Big Lebowski

Last but certainly not least, let’s talk about my favorite movie of the three, and the best hangout movie of all time, 1998’s “The Big Lebowski.” “The Big Lebowski” follows our main character Jeffrey Lebowksi, otherwise known as “The Dude,” played by Jeff Bridges. The Dude is an LA slacker, potentially the slacker-iest of all the slackers, whose only aspirations are to bowl and drink White Russians. The Dude’s life is shaken up when he gets mistaken for another Jeffrey Lebowski, a wheelchair-bound millionaire. He’s then drawn into a wild series of events alongside his two friends Walter, played by the immortal John Goodman, and Donny, played by Steve Buscemi. When I say wild, I’m talking Coen Brothers wild; nihilist ransom notes, strange varmints, adult film producers, feminist art pieces, and missing toes. The real beauty of this movie for me is watching the least qualified man, potentially in history, deal with a serious situation.  

I will admit that the first time I watched this movie, I didn’t get it. This is a strange movie. In order to appreciate it as a viewer, you kind of have to adopt a philosophy similar to The Dude’s. I was expecting a more by-the-books comedy film like the ones I was used to, but this movie is different. If you go into your viewing experience and just let the movie take you where it’s going to take you, I promise you’ll appreciate it as much as me. First off, this movie is brilliant. Seriously, it’s up there on Owen’s Mount Rushmore of comedy films next to 2006’s “Talladega Nights,” 2007’s “Superbad,” and 1975’s “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Every scene in “The Big Lebowski” is laugh-out-loud funny, and a lot of that comes down to the script.  Unlike the rest of the movies on my Mount Rushmore, “The Big Lebowski” has no improv in it at all, which was kind of surprising to me because not only is that commonplace in comedy movies, but the dialogue feels so natural that I was sure there was plenty of improv.  However, that’s a trend in Coen Brothers’ movies; the script is gospel. Only the fertile minds of Joel and Ethan Coen could craft all of this ridiculous, wild, crazy, and most of all, brilliantly funny dialogue. 

Like always the cast is fantastic, and of all three of the movies, “The Big Lebowski” is the film I point to when I say that the Coen’s are masters of the side character. Characters like Jesus Quintana played by John Turturro, Knox Harrington played by David Thewlis, Marty played by Jack Kehler, and The Malibu Police Chief played by Leon Russom are all unforgettable, despite only appearing in a scene or two.  The Coen Brothers manage to create a colorful world populated by eccentrics and hilarious situations that all come together to service this crazy journey our characters are going on with the perfect soundtrack to match the characters and the situations that they get themselves in–Bob Dylan, CCR, and this absolute banger Spanish version of The Eagles’ “Hotel California.”  “The Big Lebowski” helps remind me of what’s really important in life by satirizing the typical ambitious, strong, or wicked-smart protagonist you would expect in a similar film.  Like Sam Elliott says in his closing narration “It’s good knowing he’s out there, The Dude, takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.”

Now that it’s all said and done, I’ve outlined why this trio of Coen Brothers’ comedies are worth checking out with your family and friends over the holidays, please consider giving them a shot if you haven’t already. I love all of these movies. They’re charming, funny, and despite all of the outrageous lines and over-the-top silliness, they each have a heart that shines through all of the ridiculous moments.  The Coen Brothers make really good movies, and as long as I’m around, I will be doing what I can to spread the good word. Take it easy everybody, and have a very happy holiday season!

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