YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Cover Story

The Coen Mystique

The brothers didn't sell out on their first film because no one was buying. Now they prize their freedom.


PARIS — Here they are, the merry pranksters of filmmaking: talking up a storm but downplaying every topic thrown their way.

The Coen brothers' body of work, for all its surface playfulness and black humor, is taken very seriously indeed by their admirers. College students write treatises about them, while fans earnestly discuss the tiniest details of the Coens' scripts, characters and film and literary allusions. One feels that the Coens' minutiae alone could fill a Trivial Pursuit category.

"I've always felt our films are [over-analyzed]," said Ethan Coen, 40. "I don't know why. We seem to invite it. We don't intend our stories to be a code for another story or message perversely hidden by us. Yet some people treat the stories as if there is a code."

His brother Joel, 43, agrees, pointing to "Barton Fink" (1991) as the movie that invites more obscure readings than, say, a middle-period Bob Dylan lyric. In the film, John Turturro plays a self-important left-wing 1940s playwright who arrives in Hollywood to write for the movies and becomes stifled by writers' block in a run-down L.A. hotel.

"In the case of 'Barton Fink,' we almost have to plead guilty to baiting the animals," Joel says. "Because the movie is intentionally ambiguous in certain respects, and not so immediately easy to read, it almost seems to invite that [analysis]."

He pauses for effect. "So it's almost ridiculous to complain about it." The brothers laugh loudly and gleefully together, hugging their knees and rocking back and forth on the hotel sofa they both occupy.

"On the other hand," Joel continues, "what was in ["Barton Fink"] was arrived at in a more intuitive, not intellectual way in terms of how the elements came to be put into place."

Ethan chimes in: "In the case of that movie, one is ambiguous because one wants things to be ambiguous, not because one wants to hide something." In unison, the brothers nod.

This is a quintessential Coen brothers exchange--punctuated by laughter, full of droll understated humor, slyly puncturing theories and upending expectations, one sibling finishing the other's verbal musings. On such occasions, they're two individuals with one invariably shared opinion.

They offer a contrast in style and body language: Joel is taller and more lugubrious; Ethan, compact, wiry and energetic, is the natural diplomat. A certain reputation precedes them, maybe because of the mordant humor of their films and a suspicion that they are enjoying a huge private joke at the expense of the rest of us; yet the brothers turn out to be nice Midwestern boys: polite and affable.

The Coens are visiting Paris because Joel's wife, Frances McDormand, is here shooting a film. She starred in their first movie, "Blood Simple" (1984), and their last, "Fargo" (1996), for which she and they won Oscars for best actress and best original screenplay, respectively. While the Coens are in town, their distribution company has screened their latest work, "The Big Lebowski," for a handful of European journalists.

A crime caper set in Los Angeles, "The Big Lebowski," filmed on a $15-million budget, confirms the Coens' ability to straddle Hollywood and the independent sector; as visually lush and technically accomplished as any studio movie, it retains a skewed art-house sensibility.

It stars Jeff Bridges in the title role, along with a gaggle of actors who have come to constitute an informal Coen brothers repertory company: John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Turturro, Jon Polito and Peter Stormare. Julianne Moore (as an English-accented aesthete), Sam Elliott and Ben Gazzara appear in supporting roles, as do several musicians, including singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Bridges plays the indolent Lebowski, otherwise known as the Dude, a fortysomething hippie. The Dude's idea of exertion is bowling with his buddy Walter (Goodman), an excitable conspiracy theorist with a string of lurid Vietnam reminiscences.

Two thugs break into the Dude's home and rough him up. They were sent by a Mr. Big who is owed money by Lebowski's glamorous young wife. But the thugs have the wrong Lebowski; the one they should have targeted is an elderly Pasadena millionaire. The ensuing plot twists involve a kidnapping, a sudden death and a nail-biting bowling tournament.

One can only speculate what the more fanatical Coen watchers will make of the plot's twists and turns and its range of allusions. But what was actually going through the brothers' heads when they first sat down to write "The Big Lebowski"? Was it just this array of colorful characters?

"Yes," Joel says. "Simple as that. With certain conscious references or models that you use to get the [narrative] idea rolling."

Los Angeles Times Articles