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For The Coen Brothers, Gab Is A Curse, Not A Gift

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Like classic literature, a great movie captures the human condition, revealing our highest ideals and basest instincts. Few filmmakers have captured the variety of the human condition better than Joel and Ethan Coen.

Over the past 30 years, the Coen brothers have written and directed 16 movies transcending genre and (American) geography. In anticipation of their latest — “Hail Caesar!” out in theaters Friday — I re-watched the Coen brothers’ oeuvre. The movies get more enjoyable with each additional viewing. One notices the overlapping references, the catch phrases associated with each film (“nail his ass” “you betcha”), and that some characters have more to say than others.

Every Coen brothers’ movie has a distinctively talkative character. Talkers are major characters (Miles Massey in “Intolerable Cruelty”) or minor ones (the mother-in-law in “No Country for Old Men”). Women and men alike are talkers: Amy Archer in “The Hudsucker Proxy” and Bernie Bernbaum from “Miller’s Crossing.”

The Coen brothers often pair a quiet type with a gabber, such as Ed Crane and Frank (“The Man Who Wasn’t There”). Lawyers and politicians are often depicted as fast-talking SOBs. Talkers are average Joes, too: elevator operators, private detectives, and barbers. Indeed, some actors routinely appear in the Coen brothers’ films as talkers: John Goodman, Tony Shalhoub, Steve Buscemi, and George Clooney.

A Litany of Talkers

Talkers can be likable — who (other than Smokey) wouldn’t want to go bowling with Walter Sobchak? — but more often, talkers are jerks whom you’d dread interacting with on a daily basis: your wife’s mother or a candidate running for political office. Talkers come from all walks of life and every demographic. Despite this variety, core themes emerge: talkers are arrogant, manipulative, or lonely.
to the point of exhaustion.

Despite this variety, core themes emerge: talkers are arrogant, manipulative, or lonely.

Arrogant talkers are self-important. They eagerly share information about themselves to impress others. These talkers are confident in their insights and in their ability to judge. In “Ladykillers,” Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, PhD, claims to be a university professor on sabbatical and the director of an early Renaissance musical ensemble (with the French pronunciation). He routinely highlights his credentials: he holds degrees in Greek and Latin, he studied at the Sorbonne, and he can recite Edgar Allan Poe by memory.

Dorr finds himself clever: he giggles at his own jokes and is enamored with his plan to rob a casino without leaving a trace. He patronizes those he considers beneath him, which is everyone; he detests Marva Munson’s religious belief and would rather kill her than attend church with her.

Rivaling Dorr for the most self-important person the Coen brothers’ universe is Barton Fink. The success of his first play convinces Fink he is the voice of the common man. He lands a writing gig in Hollywood to work for a movie studio.

Yet writing popular movies—the movies the common man would actually want to see—is beneath him. Assigned to write a wrestling picture, Fink refuses to learn anything about the sport. He monologues rather than dialogues with the next-door neighbor Charlie. Because he never listens, Fink misses that Charlie is a maniac serial killer.

Talking Oneself Into a Hole

Manipulative talkers are deceptive. In “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” Ulysses Everett McGill (who goes by his middle name) considers himself “endowed with the gift of gab.” Everett convinces his fellow inmates, Pete and Delmar, that 1) he was convicted of robbery; 2) the loot was never found; but 3) if they break out from jail, they can recover the buried treasure and divide the proceeds.

The most sympathetic talkers are the lonely talkers. They are starved for companionship.

That Everett convinces Pete to join his plan is a testament to McGill’s rhetorical skills: Pete escapes from jail a few weeks before completing his sentence. Everett has duped them all, though. There was no robbery or buried treasure. Everett was convicted of practicing law without a license. The true purpose of the escape was for Everett to get home to persuade his ex-wife not to remarry.

Perhaps the most sympathetic talkers are the lonely talkers. They are starved for companionship. At the first sight of a ready listener, these talkers prattle on incessantly. Marva Munson (“Ladykillers,” not “Intolerable Cruelty”) is an old widow who rents a room and a basement to a group of robbers. She chatters to anyone who will listen: the police, other old ladies at the church, her cat, and even her dead husband’s portrait.

The problem is that she talks so much that people tune her out rather than hear her out. Indeed, when she reports the robbery to the local police, they dismiss her complaint.

As these portrayals suggest, verbosity proves to be a vice. These talkers are inwardly focused—on themselves, their desires, their longings. They are too busy talking to comprehend the present circumstances or foresee potential dangers.

Loose Lips Sink Ships

As a result, talkers bring ruin on themselves and others. Although the Coen brothers’ moral universe isn’t perfectly consistent (nor should it be, given that “A Serious Man” tackles theodicy), this bears out repeatedly.

Sometimes talkers get what they want but ruin all others. ‘Burn After Reading’s’ Linda Litzke is one such malicious person.

“Fargo’s” Carl Showalter is the clearest example of a motormouth who causes his own demise. Carl is one of the two men Jerry Lundegaard hires to kidnap his wife, Jean Lundegaard. Carl is a talker. He catalogues the many ways he feels inconvenienced: he can’t find a hooker, his sociopathic associate wants pancakes (again!), he wants more money and the getaway car.

Carl relies on verbal threats to intimidate others. Talking is his downfall. The police ably track the kidnappers and their accomplices, because Carl’s loquaciousness leaves a trail. People cannot describe Carl’s physical appearance (beyond “funny-looking”), but they remember that he’s a talker. Gaear Grimsrud, the quiet kidnapper, kills Carl to shut him up. He stuffs the body into a wood chipper, as if needing to drown out the corpse.

Sometimes talkers get what they want but ruin all others. “Burn After Reading’s” Linda Litzke is one such malicious person. Litzke works at a DC-area gym, Hardbodies. Exercising isn’t enough to fix her arms, thighs, stomach, and face. Getting plastic surgery, therefore, becomes her all-consuming goal, and she tells everyone about it.

She is too busy talking about herself to notice others. Her co-worker, Chad, wants to be a “good Samaritan” and return a lost disk to its rightful owner. Litzke convinces Chad to blackmail the owner instead. Litzke’s boss, Ted, is in love with her; she talks about the guys she dates online. Litzke’s chatty selfishness leads to Chad’s death, and Ted’s too. (The upside: Litzke convinces the CIA to pay for her plastic surgery.)

Talking Too Much Reveals Self-Centeredness

Not every instance of talking makes one a talker. The Coen brothers recognize that the right words in the right place can be virtuous. In “True Grit,” young Mattie Ross capably negotiates with a local horse trader. Her ease of speaking and frequent appeals to her lawyer prevent the merchant from dismissing her.

The Coen brothers recognize that the right words in the right place can be virtuous.

Silence can also be a vice. In “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” Ed Crane is too cowardly to confront his wife’s infidelity, so he blackmails her lover. Grimsrud is the quiet kidnapper of “Fargo” because he’s a sociopath.

If good movies, like good literature, tell us something true about human nature, then the Coen brothers seem to be saying that talkers are fundamentally selfish. At best, they chatter to keep themselves company. At worst, talkers are arrogant jerks manipulating those around them.

The Good Book reminds us that words fitly spoken are apples of gold. The Coen brothers affirm the inverse: words incessantly spewed are poisonous fruits to ourselves and others. Because of human selfishness, the gift of gab is really a curse.