IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

O Brother!

Bellmont: Can the Coens sell tickets…without selling out?

Paging Joel and Ethan Coen. Your latest movie’s parked at the corner of Commercial Success Avenue and Independent Lane. Critics say you can’t have it both ways: You need to pick a path. Which road are you going to take?“Intolerable Cruelty” is the quirky Coens’ first real stab at writing and directing a potentially commercially successful movie. So successful, in fact, that some of their fans are worried that these wildly original moviemakers are on tap to lose their souls — and their independent spirit — along the way. Skeptics seem to resent the fact that, instead of continuing their critically praised but virtually audience-ignored films, the Coens are veering into uncharted territory: the pursuit of the blockbuster. Can they deliver a provocative and — gasp! — profitable picture?

Sure, stepping into the churning waters of mainstream moviemaking can alienate a devoted audience, especially one as vocal as the Coens’. But a commercially successful movie can also attract throngs of new fans, not to mention earn Hollywood clout and cash, which a director can then — in a perfect world — use to make more personal, creative films. Provided the filmmakers don’t completely sell out in the process, that is.

Films labeled as “independent” share a self-sufficient sensibility, eschewing studio politics (and often budgets), formulaic plots and cardboard characters. And the Coen Brothers have been independent to the core. Coen films are, by their very nature, intimate: thick with theme, rich with symbolism and metaphor, and open to interpretation. (Is “Barton Fink” all in the main character’s mind or not? Is the motorcyclist in “Raising Arizona” really the repressed dark side of Nicolas Cage’s personality?) Plenty for film geeks to digest, and often too tough for the general moviegoing public to sink its teeth into.

From their first film, the noirish thriller “Blood Simple” (1984), Joel and Ethan hooked film fans with their spectacular camera work, offbeat characters and point-of-view that was a dramatic departure from most mid-80s studio piffle. “Teen Wolf Too,” it’s not.

Fans delight in the brothers’ obvious love of language, and their loopy, challenging plots. And critics agree. The Coens have been slathered with accolades from the likes of Cannes, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the National Board of Review.

“Miller’s Crossing,” “Barton Fink,” “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “The Big Lebowski,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” — all these films have resonated with hardcore Coenites. And none has made a dent with mass audiences. Of these, only “Lebowski” earned double-digit millions.

Even when they flirt with commercial success, as they did with “Raising Arizona,” “Fargo,” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, the Coens seem to add in enough eccentricity, obscure references or brain-bending dialogue to ensure that their films never quite catch on with the mainstream. “O Brother,” their biggest crossover hit to date (and first collaboration with George Clooney), was based on Homer’s “The Odyssey” — a move not exactly designed to bring in the teenaged throngs. Odds are the only Homer most kids know is bright yellow and lives with Bart, Lisa, Maggie and Marge. Indeed, as relatively successful as it was, the film’s septuple-platinum soundtrack found far more success than the movie itself.

Upping the ante Ordinarily, the Coens have relied upon a top-notch but less glamorous stable of actors to make their often-warped vision a reality, including John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, and Frances McDormand, who also happens to be Joel Coen’s wife. But with “Intolerable Cruelty,” theater owners must be licking their chops over the prospect of box-office draws Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones sharing the screen, in a love story, no less.

But will these attractive A-listers help the Coens move beyond art-house fanaticism and open the door, even a crack, to the big theater at the end of the multiplex - the one usually reserved for sci-fi-superhero-action-fests? Could be, especially since Clooney and Zeta-Jones bring both sizzle and steak to the table. Lest we forget, Mrs. Michael Douglas ain’t just a pretty face: she took home the best supporting actress trophy at last year’s Oscars.

Possibly even more important is the Coens’ collaboration behind the camera. The duo has teamed for the first time with uberproducer Brian Grazer, known for creating big blockbusters, or at least well-respected commercial successes (“Apollo 13,” “8 Mile,” “A Beautiful Mind”), neither of which the Coens know much about.

With their stars’ sex appeal, producer’s savvy and wide release, there’s little doubt that the Coens will attract a mass audience. But the big question is this: Can they do it without alienating their diehard fans?

Seamless transitions
Other “indie” directors have faced this challenge, to varying levels of success. The most successful in straddling the line between art and commerce are those directors who hang onto at least a modicum of what made audiences fall in love with them in the first place. Coen pal Sam Raimi burst onto the scene with his no-budget horror flick “The Evil Dead,” and he continues to provide giddily original visuals and compelling storytelling — even on such big-budget studio movies as “Spider-Man.”

Christopher Nolan followed his talked-about Moebius-strip of a movie “Memento” with the smart, twisty, bigger-budget thriller “Insomnia.” Now he’s the guiding force behind “Batman 5.” But will it emerge as a smart, dark, indie-feeling graphic novel — as fanboys seem to be clamoring for — or will this be another Joel Schumacher-fest, with Bat-nipples on the leather costume, over-the-top celebrity baddies, and fast food tie-ins? Nolan’s past work suggests that audiences will get the intense, well-written, creative flick they crave.

Robert Rodriguez made his feature debut, “El Mariachi,” on a budget of $7 thousand dollars, less than most big-time directors lose between the cushions of their couch. After attracting audience attention — and a respectable gross — he more or less remade the flick with Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek as 1995’s “Desperado.” And last month, his follow-up with the same actors, the shot-on-digital-video “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” opened at the top of the charts. In between, his family-friendly “Spy Kids” trilogy attracted a new generation of fans, cementing his reputation as a mainstream director who delivers far better than mainstream quality. Rodriguez has managed to maintain his indie sensibility — and control of his movies, often shooting and editing them himself — while pleasing mass audiences.

Mainstream missteps
On the other hand, acclaimed documentary director Joe Berlinger helmed the sequel to “The Blair Witch Project” — with horrifying results. The first “Witch” was an independent-to-mainstream success story, budgeted at just $35 thousand bucks and grossing $140 million in wide release. Berlinger’s “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” though, blemished the director’s otherwise stellar resume — and potentially cursed his chances for additional big-budget work. After winning critical raves and Emmy and Sundance nods for his disturbing nonfiction like “Brother’s Keeper” and “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” Berlinger suddenly found himself nominated for a “Worst Director” Razzie Award.

John Singleton, who delivered the fiercely independent “Boyz N the Hood” in 1991 and 1995’s “Higher Learning,” about racial tension on a college campus, graduated to 2003’s “2 Fast 2 Furious.” “Boyz,” a tough, personal look at L.A. gangs, earned Singleton best director and best screenplay Oscar nominations. A world apart from the rough appeal of his earlier work, “2 Fast” came off as a flash-over-substance summer sequel starring good-looking actors driving speedy cars.

Perhaps the biggest independent-to-mainstream misstep in recent years? Ang Lee. The celebrated director won his indie cred with well-received relationship pictures like “Sense and Sensibility,” “Eat Drink Man Woman,” and “The Ice Storm.” Later, he rocketed to fame with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the subtitled blend of drama and acrobatic action that won four Oscars, including best foreign language film and best cinematography.

Then Universal handed the director the very expensive keys to Marvel Comics’ behemoth “Hulk.” But was it a mistake for this director who specializes in telling small stories about the human condition to tackle a summer blockbuster about a big, green, computer-generated monster? The flick, with a budget of $120 million dollars, was pricier than all of the Lee’s other films…combined. After taking an audience lashing for too much talk and not enough smash (not to mention early Internet reports of a fake-looking lead character), some wondered if Lee should have stuck to his sensitive roots and left the comic book heroics to a director better suited to the genre. Still, he deserves credit for injecting depth into an often two-dimensional form.

Life imitates art
It’s a sticky wicket. The Coens now find themselves facing a situation not dissimilar to the one they explored in their 1991 film “Barton Fink,” where a serious writer takes a job scripting a commercial movie — and plunges quickly and painfully into Hell. Can the Coens sell tickets…without selling out?

Next up for the brothers, a flick with even more commercial possibilities, a remake of the 1955 caper flick “The Ladykillers,” this time starring box-office bonanza Tom Hanks. With it, they’ll likely be up against the same criticism that came with “Cruelty.” Can the Coens avoid audience backlash, a fate worse than — in Hollywood, anyway — death? They can if they stand tough and continue to make the type of flicks that won them their fans in the first place: edgy, quirky, thematically rich movies that tickle and amaze.

Down the road, even if Joel and Ethan Coen make an occasional tiny compromise, take studio politics into consideration, or bend to the wishes of the omnipotent marketing machine, fans should keep one thing in mind: A mainstream Coen Brothers movie is still a Coen Brothers movie. Their style is so unique, their voice is so distinct, they’re bound to turn even the biggest blockbuster into something worth watching.

Mostly mainstream or endearingly independent? No matter which path the brothers choose, audiences are likely in for a satisfying ride. As long as the Coens are the ones doing the driving.