Other than financial concerns, every film the Coen's had made got pretty-much positive criticism. Miller's Crossing and The Hudsucker Proxy had its interesting concepts, but ultimately failed at the box-office. Whatever the case, producers knew, with the right restraints (not too mcuh money...) the Coen's had an established audience and all they needed was a certain amount of freedom to continue to enlarge the audience they were building...
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
My personal favourite Coen's movie, The Man Who Wasn't There was based in 1940's California (another destination, a different decade...) filmed in black-and-white, this was the film-noir thriller the Coen's had been attemping to make since the gangster-about gangsters movie Miller's Crossing and, to some extent, the hints of noir in Blood Simple. Actors returning to the Coen's production were Tony Shalhoub (briefly in Barton Fink), Michael Badalucco (from O Brother...) and Frances McDormand, but again, we get actors who appear in future Coen movies - namely Richard Jenkins and Billy Bob Thornton.
Inspired by a poster of 40's haircuts the Coen's saw when making The Hudsucker Proxy, this film has all the Coen cliches - murder, infidelity and strange, quirky characters (Johansson's apathetic Birdy, Big Dave's Alien-obsessed wife). Even the ending has surrealist slant as Billy Bob's quiet barber witnesses UFO's in the night sky. Billy Bob Thornton's 'Ed Crane' has many attributes the Coen's leading men have - not knowing a Beethoven places him in that middle-of-the-road character position akin to Barton Fink, not stupid but not incredibly clever - but this time he is quiet and sincere, making it all the more shocking when we find that Crane is on death row, narrating the film shortly pre-death by electricution. He regrets nothing - but wishes he hadn't hurt others. The manufacturing-age is briefly alluded to also - akin to the Soggy Bottom Boys record in O Brother and the hula-hoop in Hudsucker - Crane invests into the crazy idea that is dry-cleaning.
Personally, I thought the film was one of the weakest Coen films to date. Not as funny as it thinks it is, with Catherine Zeta-Jones completely miscast as a red-dress man eater. She is simply so boring - where is the the Claudette-Colbert alongside Clooney's-Gable? The film descends into chaos as we know what will play out and simply sit and wait to see it happen - some clever twists and turns - but ultimately, unsatisfying. Even the quirky character in the hired-killer isn't that funny and the affluent LA world is nothing in comparison to the moody Santa Rose of The Man Who Wasn't There - it looks cheap and distasteful, akin to the divorce-money-making business that Zeta-Jones and Clooney live off. So, time for the Coen's to go back to something that worked well before ...
The Coen's often write their own films - and whenever they adapt them from other sources (O Brother, Where Art Thou, based on the Odyssey and even The Big Lebowski has strong ties to The Big Sleep) they change them enough to make them their own. The Ladykillers, based on the Ealing Studios classic from 1955, was no different. Or was completely different to the original but no-different in how the Coen's adapt others material. The original based in London involving an old woman in Kings Cross could not be more different than Mrs Munson (Irma P. Hall), the widow living in the archaic-town of Saucier, Missisippi (the same state for O Brother, Where Art Thou, but sixty years later...). Tom Hanks was pulled on board to lead the cast - the top of the A of A-list actors. The film recieved luke-warm reviews, apparently remaking a classic does not give the Coen's enough leeway for their own creativity. Personally, murder and quirky characters set within a small local-town with all of its mannerisms is completely the Coen's style - think Fargo - and this was not lost on everybody, as they managed to gain the Cannes Jury prize of 2004.
T-Bone Burnet who provided the maginificent music for O Brother.. worked alongside Carter Burwell to, once again, provide an incredible mix of African-American Gospel Music and Hip-Hop. It rooted the film in an ambiguous world that blurred the boundaries betweent he old-school attitude of Mrs Munson and contemporary attitude of Marlon Wayan's Gawain Macsam. Vastly underrated, this film shows how great Hanks can be and how consistent the Coens can be - even when adapting material.