May 31, 2004

Terry Teachout on the Coen Brothers

Posted by Ed

One of the movies I saw back in March was The Ladykillers, a remake of the Alec Guiness classic by Joel and Ethan Coen. I didn't find the film especially memorable (my own commentary on this blog ended by describing it as "entertaining enough, occasionally quite amusing, but nothing special overall"; I get the sense that my reaction might have been more negative if I were more familiar with the original Ladykillers produced by the Ealing studio.

Tonight I read Terry Teachout's review of the movie in Crisis, one of the most delightfully scathing commentaries on a movie that I can remember reading. The first paragraph is worth quoting in full, and the second is a decent introduction to the review:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast, except when you’re a critic. Sooner or later, there comes a time when you finally decide to give up on artists who've disappointed you repeatedly. I stopped bothering with Woody Allen, for instance, after Sweet and Lowdown (the only reason I went to see that one was because it was about a Django Reinhardt–like jazz musician), and now there is no possible circumstance not involving the exchange of large sums of money that could induce me to go see a new movie by him. I don't care what other critics say, or even what my moviegoing friends say: I just don't care anymore. Yes, I know it's well within the realm of theological possibility that Allen might someday be touched by grace and make a good movie, but if God doesn’t have better things to do, then I've got bigger things to worry about.

I made a similar decision about Joel and Ethan Coen after the most recent of their films that I reviewed for Crisis, O Brother, Where Art Thou? I’d liked some of their early work very much, Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing in particular, but as the outlines of their style and the narrow limitations of their interests became clearer over time, I realized that intermittent interest had turned to active dislike. The older I get, the more acutely aware I become of the passing of time, and the less of it I want to waste on experiencing works of art that irritate me. After O Brother, the thought of letting the Coen brothers hustle me two hours nearer to the grave with yet another of their arch films-about-film was simply too depressing to contemplate, so I skipped The Man Who Wasn’t There and Intolerable Cruelty and felt quite pleased with myself for having done so.

A long story made short: Teachout ended up watching The Ladykillers and didn't like it at all. If you read the review in full, you'll get a strong overall review complete with gems like this:

It’s revealing, I’m sure, that The Ladykillers, like O Brother, Where Art Thou? before it, makes extensive use of gospel music for parodistic purposes. Once again, the music itself is terrific, but the uses to which it is put are both ironic and quintessentially postmodern: We are clearly supposed to be amused by all those benighted believers rocking joyously in their pews, even though Dey Got Rhythm and we sorry white folk don’t. That’s how postmodernism works—it plays both sides of the street, winking in either direction. That’s how The Ladykillers works, too, and that’s why it’s the last “comedy” by Joel and Ethan Coen I ever plan to see. Whatever else nihilism is, it isn’t even slightly funny.

Teachout's review is an excellent example of what I look for in movie criticism. My view of the Coen brothers isn't the same as his: after all, I really enjoyed Intolerable Cruelty and had a mixed reaction to O Brother. (There were parts of O Brother that I really liked and parts that I really admired, but still other scenes fell flat; the result was a movie that I enjoyed overall, but that didn't seem fully compelling as a whole.) Even so, I really enjoyed Teachout's review: his biting style, clear knowledge of film, and strong opinions made it one of the more compelling reviews I've read in a long time.

Posted by Ed at May 31, 2004 11:04 PM

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