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'Grit' Happens

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Monday, Jan 10, 2011
Usually, the Coens are considered a cult favorite. Now, they have become... commercial?
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True Grit

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld, Barry Pepper

(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 24 Dec 2010 (General release); UK theatrical: 24 Dec 2010 (General release); 2010)

With its box office win over the 7 January weekend and its continuing critical pull, the Coen Brothers brilliant True Grit has broken the beloved $100 million mark, making it a rarity in the American auteurs’ seemingly endless supply of motion picture masterpieces. Even with their collection of Oscars and acknowledgment as reigning cinematic geniuses, this is the first time the boys have surpassed the magical (if now no longer really relevant or mandatory) “blockbuster”  figure.  Previously, No Country for Old Men had the highest number of turnstile twists. Even with a Best Picture win, it stalled at around $90 million. So hitting $110 million is a big milestone—and with the Academy noms upcoming, there’s no clear profit-making end in sight.


While the die-hards drone on about how nothing beats ‘The Duke’ and cynics struggle to explain away its popularity (“it’s the only ‘good’ movie in a sea of stifling crap”), it appears that the Coens have finally done what, before, they could only dream of. They’ve tapped into the mainstream while maintaining their high standards for screenplay, acting, and production value. In the 26 years they’ve been making movies (yes, that long), they’ve had more than enough love from the critics (the opinions of Grit are comparable to Blood Simple, Fargo, and No Country), but this is the first time the public has pulled up alongside. Usually, the Coens are considered a cult favorite. Now, they have become… commercial?
  
It’s a weird thought, made even stranger by the various media clarifications. Some suggest that the lingering legacy of John Wayne has that most untapped of audience resource—the over 50 crowd—interesting in going to the Cineplex again. Adults rarely turn up for the weekly pap peddled by Tinseltown, and the studios know it. Perhaps that’s why everything seems to be geared toward the adolescent mindset and the toddler IQ. When something smart shows up - or more importantly, creeps into the social/pop culture consciousness—Mom and Dad pay attention. Grit seems to have managed said feat, and even expand into that rarest of demos… the grandmother and grandfather. And since it is a remake, it already has the easy recognition element that most aged viewers require.


Then there is the competition, or what Hollywood considers same. Grit opened the same weekend as the horrific Ben Stiller/Robert DeNiro paycheck panto Little Fockers, and for the last three weeks has been summarily beaten by the low brow farce. While eventual totals have been close, the sorry excuse for joke names and Viagra wit lured enough of the unexpected into its money grabbing maw to rack up its own post-$100 million take. The weekend of 7 January was the first time Grit beat out the lamentable laugher, and with equally unexceptional opposition from titles like Season of the Witch, Country Strong, and Gulliver’s Travels, the “best of the bad bunch” argument has some legs.


But then how does one describe the recent trending downward - meaning toward that all important 14 to 29 demo? Recent articles have suggested that True Grit has finally crossed over because, after all the adults went to see this odd, old form genre (the Western), junior and his skate rat buddies have decided to check it out as well. Messageboard Nation, long a supporter of the Coens, can take some of the credit for spreading the good word, and websites such as Ain’t It Cool News, Hit Flix, and David Poland’s Movie City News have been touting the title since its release. Yet the Geek Squads have been fired up before—Scott Pilgrim, Kick-Ass—and failed to fulfill their vast viral marketing promise.


No, it seems like something as ancient and rickety as the oater itself—word of mouth—is what’s driving True Grit‘s success. Granted, it has been bolstered by a “nothing better out there” malaise that sees desperate filmgoers giving otherwise unknown quantities a shot and for all intents and purposes, the Coens are established, if still elusive. Home video has helped their profile immensely—isn’t that right, all you Big Lebowski Achievers out there?—and their constant presence in the Year End/Best of discussions has wooed many a wayward cinephile. After a quarter century spinning their unique brand of celluloid magic, Grit appears to be a kind of culmination.


Let’s face it, anytime you can get the general public talking you’re going to face some manner of windfall. It happened over the Summer with Inception, the Christopher Nolan brainbuster that became water cooler fodder for an otherwise mediocre popcorn season, and before Grit walked in to disrupt things, Darren Aronofsky’s operatic horror thriller Black Swan was giving co-workers coffee break fits. Both films went on to match or remake expectations, the former finding nearly $825 million worldwide. It’s never wise to scoff at zeitgeist, and now The Coens are the unusual beneficiaries of same. Even with The Green Hornet and The Dilemma opening up on 14 January, the brothers are poised to be part of the bottom line picture until the last little gold statue is awarded, if not after.


So while long time lovers of the boys’ work get used to the notion of them being part of populist appreciation and ponder their next move—will it be an adaptation of To the White Sea? a Cold War comedy called 62 Skidoo? the long rumored George Clooney vehicle Hail Caesar? or an actual sequel to Barton Fink called Old Fink?—one thing’s for certain. After spending a career in entertainment exile, allowed out to win a few accolades and then slink back to their place in the “aren’t they peculiar” pecking order, the Coen Brothers have finally found mainstream success. While unusual, it might just be something the boys need to get used to. 


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