The Coen Brothers Make Another Smart Movie about Stupid People.Posted: September 18, 2008
After I saw the greatly enjoyable new Coen Brothers movie Burn After Reading last week, it occured to me that every single Coen Brothers movie is about the same thing. This might seem unlikely, since some of their movies are film-noirs and some are silly romps and some are picaresque adventures and some are dark meditations on the nature of violence etc., but it’s true:
Every single Coen Brothers movie is about people who aren’t as smart as they think they are getting into deep doo-doo because they’re not as smart as they think they are.
That is the formula. Sometimes these people are plain dumb, and in some cases they’re highly intelligent – but in every case, no matter where they fall on the stupid/smart spectrum, they think they’re smarter than they actually are. Even the sharpest of them – and some Coen characters are pretty smart – overreach because they overestimate their smarts. The trouble always comes because their evaluation of their cleverness is a little or a lot high of the mark.
I feel very clever right now because, by unpacking the secret of the entire Coen Bros. oeuvre, I feel as if I just discovered the formula for Coca Cola. If this were a Coen Brothers movie, something terrible would happen to me right now for thinking that.
Take a sampling of their movies in order. Blood Simple. Guy thinks he’s smart enough to hire a hit on his wife and get away with it. Guy finds he’s wrong. Raising Arizona. Couple thinks they’re clever enough to kidnap a baby, raise it as their own, and get away with it. Couple learns different. Barton Fink. Brilliant playwright thinks he’s smart enough to handle Hollywood. Brilliant playwright comes up short. The Hudsucker Proxy. Corporate sharpies hire moron to run their business, with intent to buy it for pennies when he runs it into the ground. Corporate sharpies outsmarted by moron. Fargo. Car salesman fancies himself smart enough to fashion a kidnapping scheme involving a couple of thugs. Car salesman ends up way in over his head. The Big Lebowski. Intelligent cool aging hippie dude and his intelligent neo-con buddy think they’re intelligent enough to take on nasty millionaire. Discover it’s not as easy as they thought. O Brother, Where Art Thou? Lovable moron escaped cons bumble their way across 1930s Mississippi. Intolerable Cruelty. Brilliant divorce lawyer and canny femme fatale try to outsmart each other. Both find selves getting outsmarted. The Ladykillers. Genius professor hires moron thieves to rob a casino. Things do not work out well for genius or morons. No Country for Old Men. Shrewdness and guile turn out to be no match for pure evil.
And now, Burn After Reading. Brilliant CIA analyst turns out to be cuckolded fool. And that’s just the start of it. Washington portrayed as town populated by people promoted one grade beyond their competence levels, buying into their own PR, and suffering ignominious ends because of it. Mixed with morons who severely overestimate their ability to beat the system.
The Coens’ world revolves entirely around brains. Their presence or absence. And how no amount of brainpower is sufficient to make us anything but fools.