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FILM COMMENTARY : They Never Come In From the Cold : Joel and Ethan Coen’s movies may be one of a kind, but is it a kind you can warm up to? After the increasingly chilly ‘Miller’s Crossing,’ ‘Barton Fink’ and ‘The Hudsucker Proxy,’ the answer is no

<i> Peter Rainer is a Times staff writer</i>

A friend of mine once described the films of Joel and Ethan Coen as the movie equivalent of eye-catching curios you stare at in an antique shop without ever wanting them in your home, and I know what he means.

Their latest film, “The Hudsucker Proxy,” set in 1958 but often deliberately evoking the ‘30s, is a $40-million curio. As gewgaws go, it’s monumental, a ship-in-a-bottle in full launch.

Of course, the detailing in their films, starting with their first, the low-budget, whacked-out Texas Gothic “Blood Simple” (1984), was always scrupulously applied. It’s just that now there’s more applique to play with.

Through five films, which also include “Raising Arizona” (1987), “Miller’s Crossing” (1990) and “Barton Fink” (1991), the Coens have managed to make films that don’t look like anybody else’s, even though they draw unapologetically on other movies. (Several of their movies, like “Barton Fink” and “Hudsucker Proxy,” revolve around the ambiguities of authorship.) The paradox of the Coens’ films is that they seem both one-of-a-kind and derivative, personal and impersonal. They draw on our memories of other movies not in order to evoke the same feelings in us but to distance us from those feelings. The Coens--artists as control freaks--want us to know they’re in control.

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Their movies may be one-of-a-kind, but is it a kind you can warm up to? The dissociation one feels watching the Coens’ films--particularly the most recent three--comes not so much from the gap between form and content as between form and feeling. This gap, like everything else in their films, is intentional. The Coens like to send you out of the theater with a postmodernist chill.

Given the amount of gluey sentimentality in most Hollywood movies, the wise-alecky frostiness of the Coens’ films is something to be reckoned with. At least they don’t slobber all over you. Technically the films are ambitious, so chockablock with references to old movies and myth that they ought to come with illuminated skeleton keys so audiences can follow along in the dark. But emotionally the films don’t aim high. Often what you’re left with, as in “Blood Simple” or “Barton Fink,” is a parched giggle.

From the very start, with “Blood Simple,” it was the “knowingness” of the Coens that endeared them to critics and movie producers. “Blood Simple” was a gory pulp melodrama with corpses buried alive and a heroine in peril in the final reel. But it was also a kind of critique of the form. The fancy camera moves, like the celebrated one in which the camera glides along the length of the bar and then lifts up over a napping drunk, were a way of placing the screen action within a cineaste’ s quotation marks.

The fanciness didn’t serve any artistic agenda really; it didn’t attempt to alter our way of seeing but instead tried to flatter it. (That’s why movie-wise people loved the film.) When Jean-Luc Godard used movies tricks and quotes in his ‘60s films, he did it to break through to new subject matter, new states of political awareness. The Coens simply want us to know they’ve seen the same movies we have.

“Raising Arizona,” the Coens’ next film, was breakneck where “Blood Simple” was deliberately laggard. If the dialogue in “Blood Simple” was paced Pinter-slow--for that extra-special mock-ponderous effect--the banter in “Raising Arizona” was positively hopping. The film featured those two world-class jaw-boners, Holly Hunter and Nicolas Cage, as a childless couple who, in desperation, swipe a quintuplet. Until the film skidded off-road with a wart-hog “Road Warrior” fantasia, it was amusingly madcap. (The sight of Cage fleeing a convenience store hold-up with a box of Huggies wedged under his armpit was a great yuppie era joke.)

But in a sequence like the one where the placid baby quint is left unattended in the middle of the highway, or toted along for a bank robbery, the film also betrayed the Coens’ penchant for giggly heartlessness. They outsmarted themselves on this movie. Playing to the audience’s movie-inspired anticipations as avidly as any action-movie hack, they didn’t allow for where we might draw the line in our suspension of disbelief. (The film was a modest hit anyway, their only one.)

In “Miller’s Crossing,” in which Gabriel Byrne played a gangland henchman who inexplicably offers himself up as sacrificial avenger out of loyalty to the boss who abused him, the Coens chucked their lickety-split cartoonishness and instead sunk deeply into the goo of mythic seriousness. It was a gangster art piece set in 1929 in an unnamed city--gangster films, of course, should never be set in unnamed cities. Hermetically sealed off from any origins except old movies, “Miller’s Crossing” was the closest the Coens have come to standard sentimentality. Maybe that’s why it’s so nerveless: They couldn’t muster any conviction for those old Hollywood crime movie conventions because they live on the flip side of those conventions.

With “Barton Fink,” the Coens seemed crouched inside a private vision that always threatened but never quite succeeded in going public. (It had some of the same humid, congealed tricksterism as the worst of David Lynch.) John Turturro’s Barton, a Broadway playwright with a proletarian hit on his hands a la Clifford Odets, drags his heels to Hollywood to work on a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. He checks into a faded dump of a hotel where he befriends a burbly tenant who turns out to be a mass murderer, and inexorably unravels. Barton is passionate about the life of the mind and ends up toting a severed head in a box. (So much for the mind’s life.)

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The Coens deliberately made Barton a pointy-headed object of pathos; his ravings about creating “a new theater of and about the common man” are made to sound sickly and condescending. It’s a cruel caricature but the cruelty is partly self-inflicted. Barton may represent the Coens’ worst image of themselves. Opposite him is the studio head who has his own rant: “We need some heart in motion pictures.” To Barton he wheedles, “Can you make us laugh, can you make us cry?” He’s the crude Philistine voice of the Coens’ harshest critics, and we’re meant to side with him (sort of). But since his criticisms anticipate and preempt our own, the Coens manage to one-up the audience anyway.

The Coens were onto something bigger and more interesting and self-examining in “Barton Fink” than they were able to fully develop. Barton’s blather about the Common Man turns to ashes before that Man’s worst-possible-case embodiment, next-door neighbor Madman Mundt--and Mundt, played with proletarian heft by John Goodman, is metaphorically linked to Hitler, who also invoked the masses. The one good idea nearly buried beneath the hallucinatory gimcracks of this movie is that common-man playwrights like Barton Fink--like Odets and all the rest--are too touched by innocence and idealism and fellow feeling to recognize the true depravity inside the masses. They’re sentimentalists presiding over their own undoing.

The script for “The Hudsucker Proxy” had been worked on by the Coens, along with Sam Raimi, since the “Blood Simple” days. (Movie trivia alert: Cage in “Raising Arizona” can be glimpsed for a second wearing a Hudsucker Industries work uniform.) It’s their most cynical opus yet, and cynicism on this elaborate a scale really sours the atmosphere.

Tim Robbins plays Norville Barnes, a hayseed from Muncie, Ind., working in the Gargantuan, nightmarish Manhattan mail room of Hudsucker Industries, when suddenly he’s installed as the company president. It’s a Machiavellian ploy by the firm’s board to avoid a public takeover by shaking investor confidence and allowing them to buy a controlling interest. But Norville, fresh-faced and oblivious, stymies the fix by getting the company to market his pet project--which turns out to be the Hula-Hoop. But this is not a success story, exactly: It all flashes back from Norville about to jump from the 44th floor of the Hudsucker building on New Year’s Eve.

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It’s a neo-Capra fairy tale--the borrowings from “Meet John Doe” in particular are legion--but with Capra’s plump populism turned inside out. That might not seem like such a bad reversal except that, compared to the Coens’ empty cackle, Capra’s we-the-people balladeering at least had a hearty ring. Capra on some level believed in his boosterism.

The Coens believe only in their own thin cynicism. They condemn Norville as a lucky schnook in a schnooky world where you can be No. 1 only by creating useless fads for all the other schnooks out there--for, you know, we the people. Norville’s comedown (or his comeback, for that matter) has no power or despair, because we are never allowed to glimpse any emotional possibilities in him. He’s a puppet on a string--a plummeting puppet. And the Coens are puppetmasters.

At a time when even the most talented American independent filmmakers, like Gus Van Sant and Richard Linklater, are fiddling with anomie, the Coens’ boisterous blankness can seem almost rousing. But only in a cynic’s paradise could their designed-to-the-teeth exercises in nattering flapdoodle metaphysics satisfy our appetite for high style. Even Terry Gilliam, whose elephantiasis of style is even more unfortunate than the Coens’, puts real passion into his panoramas. The Coens, by comparison, keep a smart, tight cool. They’re the perfect postmodernists for a race of androids.


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