We’re told there are only seven plots in all of storytelling and the only variation comes from the perspective of the storyteller. Perhaps this explains why the Coen Brothers, the most consistently original filmmakers of the past twenty five years, have found themselves mired in the world of remakes. Maybe they talked themselves into saying The Big Lebowski was a remake of The Big Sleep starring Cheech & Chong and O Brother Where Art Thou was The Odyssey set in the Depression Era South, so what’s the difference if they have their next movie be a straight up remake of an old movie or an already published novel?
It’s the kind of arrogance Michael Jordan showed when he retired from basketball to play baseball. Jordan figured audiences loved seeing him compete and it didn’t matter what the forum was, so instead of watching him exemplify excellence and poise during two of his peak years, minor league ballparks were packed with spectators obsessed with Jordan’s celebrity rather than his more admirable qualities he showed on the hardwood.
The Coen Brothers original voice combined with their encyclopedic visual pastiche combined for some really unique masterpieces. Just last year they cranked out A Serious Man which was like an episode of the Wonder Years starring a grown-up Jewish Charlie Brown. It questioned what was the point of believing in a God in a world so unjust. They showed us a bizarre world where no one knows anything. A world that no other creative voices except for maybe Larry David have a window into.
So to me any time the Coen Brothers work on derivative material it is a colossal waste of their talents. The Ladykillers was an amusing slapstick revival of an old British flick that lacked any gravitas. No Country For Old Men based on a Cormac McCarthy novel won all the Academy Awards and was the Coens most profitable movie, but I kept waiting for John Goodman or Steve Buscemi to show up. So now it brings us to True Grit, a movie made by the producers of No Country for Old Men who figured the only way to wring cash out of the Coens is to stick them in the West, give them a lot of bloodshed, and keep the oddballs and existential questions to a minimum. But as the blurb proudly presented on its movie poster states True Grit is, “one of the most mainstream films Joel and Ethan Coen have ever made.”
This is a good thing? Are there not enough “mainstream” movies out there? Do we really need to corral two of the only original voices out there by having them remake forty year old John Wayne westerns which were in turn based on a novel?
This is not to say True Grit is not a good movie. The acting is great (I’ve never been a Matt Damon fan, but he’s really awesome as a Texas Ranger), the action is intense, and the cinematography makes the old West look like a right purty place. But it’s a movie that could have been made just as competently by any number of creative teams.
Just as I’m certain that when Michael Jordan stole a base it was plenty exciting to the fans, I would still rather watch him hit a jump shot. In much the same way I want pure unadulterated Coen Brothers in my movies, not this diluted stuff.