Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The fourth season of FX’s small-screen Fargo starts, so we’re singling out “Coenesque” movies, i.e. ones influenced by or imitative of the work of those famous sibling filmmakers.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has recruited a surprising number of unlikely directors, from Shakespearean specialist Kenneth Branagh (Thor) to the strenuously indie team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Captain Marvel). It can be easy to forget, though, just how implausible that career trajectory once seemed for Anthony and Joe Russo, the brothers who eventually became the franchise’s de facto ringmasters. Nobody who saw Welcome To Collinwood back in 2002 likely would have predicted a future in mega-budget F/X blockbusters for its makers; they seemed to be positioning themselves as heirs to the Coen brothers, fashioning a goofy comedy about lunkheaded criminals who speak in a lexicon of their own devising. What’s more, they did a reasonably good job of it, even getting Collinwood invited to Cannes that year (in the Directors’ Fortnight program). Then they went full Hollywood and never looked back.
In all likelihood, this film’s apparent Coen influence stems from its being an American remake of the 1958 Italian classic Big Deal On Madonna Street, which Joel and Ethan have pretty clearly seen and much admired. Set in a run-down section of Cleveland, Collinwood introduces its team of hapless thieves by way of a stylish extended prologue, with each new recruit introducing another in turn. There’s Riley (William H. Macy, then just a few years out from his starring role in Fargo), who’s stuck caring for his newborn infant while his wife does a prison stretch; Pero (Sam Rockwell), an amateur boxer with nimble reflexes and shaky ethics; Leon (Isaiah Washington), who seeks a better life for his beloved sister (Gabrielle Union); Toto (Michael Jeter), for whom life is an endless series of senior moments; and Cosimo (Luis Guzmán), best described simply as “the Luis Guzmán character.” Their goal: to tunnel from an empty apartment into the adjacent office of a pawnbroker, then crack the safe (Coen brothers regular George Clooney makes a droll cameo as their consultant safecracker, a self-professed expert in the “circular-saw method”) and make off with what’s reputed to be a small fortune. A foolproof plan, really, provided that it’s carried out by people with fully functioning brain stems.
Lacking the freshness of Big Deal On Madonna Street (which was instrumental in creating the template for this sort of broad heist comedy), Welcome To Collinwood depends largely upon the ornery charisma of its ensemble, offering numerous opportunities for Guzmán to sputter, Macy to fret, Rockwell to preen, etc. The biggest laughs, however—and this is what makes the film feel particularly Coen-esque—derive from the deliberate obscurity of the characters’ anachronistic lowlife lingo. Words like “Mullinski” are tossed about with abandon but without explicit definition; the Russos, to their credit, trust us to determine their meaning from context. It works: By the time Riley, following yet another dispiriting setback, moans “I hate to say it, but this Bellini is starting to look like a real Kaputschnik,” you know precisely what he means. And there’s something a little dispiriting about watching the guys who wrote that line orchestrate yet another Avengers battle. (All four of their MCU films—The Winter Soldier, Civil War, Infinity War, and Endgame—were penned by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.) The Russos may have become exponentially more successful since 2002, but a different kind of potential has been lost.