Love & Sex

Everything I Know About Love I Learned From… The Coen Brothers

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Lessons on romance from the directors of True Grit, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski.


When True Grit comes out this Friday, I'll be watching for more than inventive filmmaking and great dialogue. If it's a Coen Brothers movie, chances are it's full of good relationship advice.

1. Always recognize the achievements of your partner, even if you're much more accomplished.
In Fargo, Marge and her husband Norm talk about the day's events each night before bed, commiserating about the hardships and praising each other's efforts. In the bitter cold mornings, Norm wakes early to prepare Marge a hot breakfast. She's off to keep the mean streets of Brainerd, Minnesota safe as police chief. Norm's an artist who stays at home.

There's never a feeling of resentment between the two. Marge enjoys the demands of her work and you betcha she's the primary breadwinner in the family. Norm isn't threatened by his wife's achievements or high-powered position in a historically male field. By the end of the film, the seven-months-pregnant Marge has solved a murder spree. Norm has designed a postage stamp. They're equally proud of each other. We can assume the partners will live happily ever after.

2. Sometimes it's better to just be The Dude than the dude with a girlfriend
In The Big Lebowski, The Dude doesn't have to answer to anyone until that whole mix-up with his name and the urine-soaked rug. He's a single man doing what he loves most, which is to say practically nothing, save for a lot of toking up and bowling with friends. And what does he learn when he gets involved with his namesake, the titular Big Lebowski? That relationships are a huge pain in the ass.

Look at the two central relationships in the movie. The wheelchair-bound Jeffrey Lebowski is convinced (or is he?) that his nymphomaniac trophy wife was kidnapped, when in fact she's taken off on an impromptu road trip. The marriage is a sham anyway. She married for money, and because she'll literally have sex with anything. The Big Lebowski had enough money to buy a former porn star who would make him feel better about himself. There's no love there, and the union is ultimately poisonous.

And then there's Maude Lebowski, the vaginally-inspired artist who seduces The Dude in hopes of having a child. (She tells him this after the deed's already done — so much for being on the same page). Being single is a lot more fulfilling than being in a relationship with someone who's crazy. And dude, these women are crazy.

3. There's no "us" in "breakup"
Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man is doomed from the start. But when his wife, Judith, demands a divorce out of nowhere so she can marry the neighborhood widower, Sy, he really gets treated like a schmuck. Larry's cuckolded at home with the kids, his wife, and her new lover all under the same roof. Eventually, Judith and Sy ask Larry to move into The Jolly Roger, an "eminently livable" motel. Judith keeps the house and empties all the money out of the couple's joint bank account. And who ends up paying for Sy's funeral later? Larry, of course.

Larry set himself up for this kind of fall by never standing up for himself. He let Judith call all the shots. It may sound callous, but you always have to look out for yourself when you're in a relationship. Larry never realizes this, and it makes his life miserable.

Love changes, and sometimes disappears altogether. Marriage is not forever. The one person who can't leave you is… yourself. Well, until you die, which the ending of the movie suggests Larry soon will. Oy.

4. A baby (or its surrogate) won't fix things
If rushing into things were a crime, H.I. and Ed in Raising Arizona would spend life behind bars. But they're on that path anyway when they kidnap a baby to fulfill Ed's maternal urges. Ed's barren and wants nothing more than to bring a child into her trailered life with a recidivist criminal husband. It's not clear how much H.I. really wants a child — he just wants his sweet gal to be happy.

People often think taking "the next step" will save their relationship. If you're married, this next step is often having a baby. Date someone long enough and the topic of moving in together and getting a pet will come up. Sometimes it really is the right time. And sometimes you're just taking drastic measures to secure a bond.

Nathan, Jr. only further complicates H.I. and Ed's marriage. Before, we thought H.I. was the irresponsible one, but then Ed loses her sense of morality entirely. H.I. gets together with his old cellmates and goes back to his old ways. It looks like the two will call it quits when they decide to do the right thing and return their stolen bundle of joy. It's usually not as easy to take it all back when you realize you've moved too fast.

5. You can stand by your man, but still stand on your own
When Llewelyn Moss finds two million dollars in No Country For Old Men, he hoofs it home and sends his wife, Carla Jean, off to her mother's to avoid the trouble he's about to face. He never explains what happened exactly, but Carla Jean's not dumb. She has a bad feeling, but does as her husband wishes. The two later plan to meet at a hotel, where Llewelyn will hand the money off. Carla Jean asks the sheriff to save her husband, but it's too late.

Llewelyn faces Anton Chigurh, who says that Carla Jean will be killed if the money isn't returned. There's still no easy surrender — it's a bluff anyway, as Chirgurh is crazy. No one can forget the scene when Chigurh finally goes back for Carla Jean. She doesn't break down and beg for her life. When told that Llewelyn chose not to save her, she disagrees matter-of-factly, "That's not the way it is."

Carla Jean heard what her husband had to say, but made up her own mind about things. She does the same with the serial killer who murdered him. Things end tragically, but Carla Jean's got her dignity. And there's nothing more attractive than a woman who doesn't need a man to tell her what's up.