I just saw Fargo so now I´ve seen 6 Coen brother films: Intolerable Cruelty, Ladykillers, and Man Who Wasn´t There are genre experiments of the sort you´d see as film school theses, while Fargo, Big Lebowski, and Oh Brother Where Art Thou bear a more distinct mark of the filmmakers:
-Epic-like narratives (this is more the case in Big Lebowski and Oh Brother Where Art Thou and Fargo to a lesser extent) with long winding storylines
-Vague references. I use the word vague here, because i think a little too much is made of their ability to work in their filmic references into their work. The Big Lebowski-Big Sleep connection is somewhat shady in my opinion.
-Characters who arrive at the ends of their story arcs through means in which they never planned themselves. For instance, George Clooney and company has no clue how he´s going to get out of being hanged when a humongous flood miraculously saves them. In Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges is royally screwed when he loses that briefcase but in a stroke of luck: it turns out there was never money in that briefcase. In The Ladykillers, the characters´ fates aren´t really determined by anything but unfortunate luck.
-A strong sense of place (Minnesota in Fargo, the Deep South in Ladykillers and Oh Brother, California in Intolerable Cruelty)
-Sidekicks to the protagonists that do more harm than good (Steve Buscemi´s wanting to get laid at inopportune moments and panic under pressure in Fargo, John Goodman´s aggressive outbursts in Big Lebowski, the gay baron in Intolerable Cruelty, the guy with IBS in Ladykillers)
My impression of the three that remained popular is that:
-Fargo was an extreme critical hit garnering an oscar nomination and a place in AFI´s top 100 and made several lists of best films of the decade
-Big Lebowski was an extreme cult hit
-Oh Brother (my personanal favorite and the only one of the three to make my personal top 100 list and garner 4 stars) was somewhere in between. It made many top 10 films of the year list and earned an oscar screenplay nomination.
I was wondering why these three films were received this way. My theories:
-Fargo involves murder as a comic gag while big lebowski and oh brother only involve stealing and adding murder to a plot insantly makes things more serious. Oh Brother has characters like John Goodman die but they never really show his death so they never get as graphic as Fargo.
-I also think that Big Lebowski works as wish fullfillment. The protagonist goes through things and lives a life that young men would love to have: tell off some older authority figure and not have to have respect for your elders, smoke pot and get away with it, knock up a woman and not have to deal with the responsibility of fatherhood, hang out with your buddies all day, escape any negative repercussions when you mishandle large amounts of money, etc.